March 27, 2020/Press

Tillis Silent as Trump Cut National Security Council Pandemic Team Overseeing “Pandemic Playbook” Even as Other Republicans Urged Caution

Two years ago, Senator Tillis refused to speak up when the Trump administration dissolved the body responsible for “leading the U.S. response in the event of a deadly pandemic,” even as other Republican Members of Congress urged the White House to reverse course.

The administration’s decision to leave “no senior administration official … focused solely on global health security” at a time when “experts say the country is already underprepared” is even more damning in light of a new POLITICO report that found that the administration refused to follow guidelines set forward in “the pandemic playbook,” a 69-page National Security Council report created in 2016 to give future governments instructions on how to fight pandemics, including coronaviruses specifically.

The “pandemic playbook,” which was “thrown onto a shelf” by the administration, rested with the very NSC officials “who dealt with medical preparedness and biodefense in the global health security directorate” — the body the administration disbanded in 2018.

Senator Tillis’ silence as the administration dissolved the White House’s National Security Council Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense comes as other Republicans urged the administration to reconsider. Which begs the question, why didn’t Senator Tillis speak up?

“Senator Tillis’ refusal to stand up to the administration has caused high profile blunders, like when he meekly enabled a $80 million raid on North Carolina’s military bases,” NCDP spokesman Robert Howard said. “But behind the scenes, his weakness has also helped leave us unprepared for future crises. On issue after issue, North Carolina can’t count on Senator Tillis to stand up for us.”

Politico: Trump team failed to follow NSC’s pandemic playbook
By Dan Diamond and Nahal Toosi
March 25, 2020

Key Points:

  • The Trump administration, state officials and even individual hospital workers are now racing against each other to get the necessary masks, gloves and other safety equipment to fight coronavirus — a scramble that hospitals and doctors say has come too late and left them at risk. But according to a previously unrevealed White House playbook, the government should’ve begun a federal-wide effort to procure that personal protective equipment at least two months ago.
  • The strategies are among hundreds of tactics and key policy decisions laid out in a 69-page National Security Council playbook on fighting pandemics, which POLITICO is detailing for the first time. Other recommendations include that the government move swiftly to fully detect potential outbreaks, secure supplemental funding and consider invoking the Defense Production Act — all steps in which the Trump administration lagged behind the timeline laid out in the playbook.
  • “Each section of this playbook includes specific questions that should be asked and decisions that should be made at multiple levels” within the national security apparatus, the playbook urges, repeatedly advising officials to question the numbers on viral spread, ensure appropriate diagnostic capacity and check on the U.S. stockpile of emergency resources.
  • The NSC devised the guide — officially called the Playbook for Early Response to High-Consequence Emerging Infectious Disease Threats and Biological Incidents, but known colloquially as “the pandemic playbook” — across 2016. The project was driven by career civil servants as well as political appointees, aware that global leaders had initially fumbled their response to the 2014-2015 spread of Ebola and wanting to be sure that the next response to an epidemic was better handled.
  • The Trump administration was briefed on the playbook’s existence in 2017, said four former officials, but two cautioned that it never went through a full, National Security Council-led interagency process to be approved as Trump administration strategy. Tom Bossert, who was then Trump’s homeland security adviser, expressed enthusiasm about its potential as part of the administration’s broader strategy to fight pandemics, two former officials said.
  • Trump has claimed that his administration could not have foreseen the coronavirus pandemic, which has spread to all 50 states and more than 180 nations, sickening more than 460,000 people around the world. “Nobody ever expected a thing like this,” Trump said in a Fox News interview on Tuesday.
  • But Trump’s aides were told to expect a potential pandemic, ranging from a tabletop exercise that the outgoing Obama administration prepared for the president’s incoming aides to a “Crimson Contagion” scenario that health officials undertook just last year and modeled out potential risks of a global infectious disease threat. Trump’s deputies also have said that their coronavirus response relies on a federal playbook, specifically referring to a strategy laid out by the Centers for Disease Control.
  • The document rested with NSC officials who dealt with medical preparedness and biodefense in the global health security directorate, which the Trump administration disbanded in 2018, four former officials said.

Washington Post: Top White House official in charge of pandemic response exits abruptly
By Lena H. Sun 
May 10, 2018

Key Points:

  • The top White House official responsible for leading the U.S. response in the event of a deadly pandemic has left the administration, and the global health security team he oversaw has been disbanded under a reorganization by national security adviser John Bolton.
  • The abrupt departure of Rear Adm. Timothy Ziemer from the National Security Council means no senior administration official is now focused solely on global health security. Ziemer’s departure, along with the breakup of his team, comes at a time when many experts say the country is already underprepared for the increasing risks of a pandemic or bioterrorism attack.
  • Pandemic preparedness and global health security are issues that require government-wide responses, experts say, as well as the leadership of a high-ranking official within the White House who is assigned only this role.
  • The personnel changes, which Morrison and others characterize as a downgrading of global health security, are part of Bolton’s previously announced plans to streamline the NSC.
  • His exit comes against the backdrop of other administration actions critics say have weakened health security preparedness, including dwindling financing for early preventive action against infectious disease threats abroad.
  • The White House proposal “is threatening to claw back funding whose precise purpose is to help the United States be able to respond quickly in the event of a crisis,” said Carolyn Reynolds, a vice president at PATH, a global health technology nonprofit.
  • Collectively, warns Jeremy Konyndyk, who led foreign disaster assistance at the U.S. Agency for International Development during the Obama administration, “What this all adds up to is a potentially really concerning rollback of progress on U.S. health security preparedness.”
  • The day before news of Ziemer’s exit became public, one of the officials on his team, Luciana Borio, director of medical and biodefense preparedness at the NSC, spoke at a symposium at Emory University to mark the 100th anniversary of the 1918 influenza pandemic. That event killed an estimated 50 million to 100 million people worldwide.
  • “The threat of pandemic flu is the number one health security concern,” she told the audience. “Are we ready to respond? I fear the answer is no.”