In early May 2018, media reports noted that Rear Admiral Tim Ziemer, the top White House expert on global health security, had suddenly left the National Security Council. Moreover, the NSC team he oversaw was disbanded by John Bolton, the national security adviser, as part of a reorganization. As the Washington Post put it, this meant no senior official in the Trump administration was “now focused solely on global health security.”
Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) were troubled by this news, and they sent Bolton a letter noting the dismantling of the NSC’s global health squad “comes amid continuing concerns that the nation and the world are unprepared for pandemic outbreaks or other global health threats.” (At the time, there was a new outbreak of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo.) They posed Bolton a series of questions about the NSC’s preparedness to address a pandemic, including, “What current structure is in place at the NSC to address global health security?” And the pair requested a “staff-level briefing on the Administration’s global public health work” within two weeks.
In an interview with Mother Jones this week, Warren recalls that Bolton blew them off.
Bolton, she notes, did not provide her and Murray the briefing they requested on global health security and pandemic preparedness. The senators received a generic response letter that did not address their list of questions. Warren says this reply symbolizes “the heart of why this [coronavirus] crisis is hitting so hard right now. Our government has been run for the past three years by people who don’t believe in government or at least don’t believe in government except to help themselves and their friends.” She adds, “The consequence of that is that they were willing day after day after day to strip out the people who perform the basic functions of government.”
Listen to David Corn’s in-depth interview with Sen. Elizabeth Warren on this week’s edition of the Mother Jones Podcast.
Warren, who weeks ago ended her presidential campaign, points out that she and Murray were hoping to “bring a little attention to this, a little outside oversight about it. And now we see the consequences of having stripped all those people out of government who could be helping in this pandemic.” She says there was nothing unusual in Bolton, who was booted out of the White House by Trump in September, not bothering to address the concerns they raised about US national security and the threat of pandemics. It was—and still is—routine for the Trump White House to ignore letters from members of the House and Senate. “There’s been a lot of that going on during the Trump administration,” Warren explains. “We send our letters over and get either no response of minimum responses that really don’t address the concerns. Their view has been they can do this with impunity.”
Bolton has claimed that global health “remained a top NSC priority” after he restructured the NSC and that it included an “expert team.” But Beth Cameron, who ran the NSC Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense, the unit that was dismantled by Bolton, recently wrote, “I was mystified when the White House dissolved the office, leaving the country less prepared for pandemics like covid-19.”
A former administration official says Bolton “immediately sent a letter confirming receipt [of the Warren and Murray letter]. Ambassador Bolton was always eager to speak with any member of Congress and he did so regularly. Senator Warren (nor her staff) never contacted the NSC to facilitate a further discussion, either at the staff or principal level.” A Warren spokeswoman notes, “The response she was looking for was for the White House to appoint someone to manage global health security risks. And as we know, unfortunately, that never happened.” (Bolton was also under fire recently for declining to testify during the House impeachment hearings—while saving his story for a profitable tell-all book. He did signal he would testify at the Senate impeachment trial of Trump, if subpoenaed. Bolton, who was not subpoenaed, reportedly was prepared to say that Trump had told him he had pressured the Ukrainian president to initiate political investigations that would help Trump.)
Warren says that with that May 2018 letter she and Murray were simply trying to nudge the Trump White House and the NSC Bolton oversaw to focus seriously on the threat of a pandemic. She adds, “People will die because of the inaction of our government over the past couple of months—and over the past couple of years.”