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Partly false claim: Trump fired entire pandemic response team in 2018

Correction: the headline of this fact-check earlier read “Trump fired pandemic response team in 2018”, it has been amended to “Trump fired entire pandemic response team in 2018”

Numerous posts and images circulated on social media make the claim that President Donald Trump fired the "entire pandemic response team" in 2018, ( here ).​

This claim comes amid an escalating coronavirus outbreak that as of March 24, 2020 has infected over 372,000 people and left over 16,000 dead worldwide, ( here ).

The Global Health Security and Biodefense unit — responsible for pandemic preparedness — was established in 2015 by Barack Obama’s National Security Advisor, Susan Rice ( here ). The unit resided under the National Security Council (NSC) — a forum of White House personnel that advises the president on national security and foreign policy matters.

In May 2018, the team was disbanded and its head Timothy Ziemer, top White House official in the NSC for leading U.S. response against a pandemic, left the Trump administration, the Washington Post reported ( here ). Some members of the global health and security team were merged into other units within the NSC, the article said.

The reorganization followed John Bolton’s appointment as national security advisor, and the departure of Tom Bossert, the homeland security advisor who the Post wrote “had called for a comprehensive biodefense strategy against pandemics and biological attacks.”

CONFLICTING OPINIONS ON WHAT HAPPENED TO THE TEAM

In an op-ed for the Washington Post, Beth Cameron, former Senior Director for Global Health Security and Biodefense in the NSC, wrote, “When President Trump took office in 2017, the White House’s National Security Council Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense survived the transition intact.

“Its mission was the same as when I was asked to lead the office, established after the Ebola epidemic of 2014: to do everything possible within the vast powers and resources of the U.S. government to prepare for the next disease outbreak and prevent it from becoming an epidemic or pandemic. One year later, I was mystified when the White House dissolved the office, leaving the country less prepared for pandemics like covid-19” ( here ).

Three days later, Tim Morrison, former senior director for counterproliferation and biodefense on the NSC, wrote in another Washington Post Op-Ed, “It is true that the Trump administration has seen fit to shrink the NSC staff. But the bloat that occurred under the previous administration clearly needed a correction. … One such move at the NSC was to create the counterproliferation and biodefense directorate, which was the result of consolidating three directorates into one, given the obvious overlap between arms control and nonproliferation, weapons of mass destruction terrorism, and global health and biodefense. It is this reorganization that critics have misconstrued or intentionally misrepresented. If anything, the combined directorate was stronger because related expertise could be commingled” ( here ).

On March 14, 2020, John Bolton described the changes made to the team as streamlining. He tweeted: “Claims that streamlining NSC structures impaired our nation's bio defense are false. Global health remained a top NSC priority, and its expert team was critical to effectively handling the 2018-19 Africa Ebola crisis. The angry Left just can't stop attacking, even in a crisis.” ( here )

On March 19, 2020, former Vice President and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden ​called the changes elimination. He tweeted: “The Obama-Biden Administration set up the White House National Security Council Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense to prepare for future pandemics like COVID-19. Donald Trump eliminated it — and now we're paying the price.” ( here )

CONCLUSIONS

There is disagreement over how to describe the changes at the NSC’s Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense in 2018. The departure of some members due to “streamlining” efforts under John Bolton is documented. The “pandemic response team” as a unit was largely disbanded.

VERDICT

Partly false: The Trump administration disbanded the “pandemic response” team, but some of the team members were reassigned to roles that included pandemic response

This article was produced by the Reuters Fact Check team. Read more about our fact checking work here .

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