Ebola Is Back. And Trump Is Trying to Kill Funding for It.

As a new outbreak surfaces in Africa, the only possible motive for ending America's anti-Ebola program is that Barack Obama started it.

Medical workers wearing protective suits take part in a training prior to leave to countries affected by the Ebolas virus, in an empty factory warehouse in Amsterdam, on Nov. 5, 2014. (BAS CZERWINSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Medical workers wearing protective suits take part in a training prior to leave to countries affected by the Ebolas virus, in an empty factory warehouse in Amsterdam, on Nov. 5, 2014. (BAS CZERWINSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

As U.S. President Donald Trump announced his decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal, the White House discreetly released an official proposal to cut funding for children’s health programs, Medicare, and Ebola responses. The two policies may seem unrelated, but they share the same basic design — assuming vast national security risks simply for the sake of dismantling former President Barack Obama’s legacy.

“I herewith report 38 rescissions of budget authority, totaling $15.4 billion,” reads Trump’s health program edict, referring to cuts — mostly in health care and emergency responses overseas — that he wants Congress to make in the current 2018 budget. By law, Congress has 45 days to agree to the cuts, throw them back to a veto challenge, or insist on further White House justification for the actions. The $15.4 billion slice off the $4.1 trillion federal budget is trivial, amounting to less than half a percent of government spending and making no appreciable dent in the $440 billion deficit created by the 2018 Consolidated Appropriations Act, enacted in March. In other words, there is no way Trump’s actions can be said to be motivated by fiscal responsibility, deficit reduction, or pursuit of a balanced federal budget.

Trump’s anti-Obama motive becomes apparent in rescission R18-27, which cuts $252 million in emergency response funding that had been set aside in the 2015 fiscal year during the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea, which claimed more than 11,300 lives. Obama, recognizing that the West African epidemic had the potential to become a national security crisis at home, asked Congress for roughly $1 billion in emergency funds to help the three affected countries combat the virus, deploy U.S. armed forces personnel, and sustain an all-hands-on-deck Centers for Disease Control and Prevention response that lasted well over a year. The $252 million that remained in the fund in 2018 had been reserved for use in building local capacities to spot and react to future Ebola outbreaks all over Africa.

Trump’s decision to eliminate the Ebola funds was announced at nearly the same time as the World Health Organization issued a bulletin declaring a new outbreak of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The outbreak is affecting a stretch of villages a few miles from the border with the war-torn Republic of Congo, including the remote town of Bikoro along the shores of Lake Tumba. It is the ninth time Congo has faced an Ebola outbreak, and so far 21 cases have been reported, with 17 of the patients dying, for an 81 percent fatality rate. There is no good reason to rescind the $252 million in funds to combat the deadly virus, at a time when there are signs of a renewed outbreak that could pose a threat to Americans, except if the goal is to destroy a program created by Obama — merely because he created it.

Similarly, Trump seeks to cut $30 million worth of emergency response funds from the State Department’s Complex Crises Fund (CCF). The CCF is meant to be a contingency fund at the secretary of state’s disposal to allow deployment of diplomats, disease experts, famine relief supplies, and disaster programs to de-escalate crisis situations that threaten to blow up into all-out wars or mass catastrophes. The intent is to spend a little money today to offset cataclysm tomorrow. Created at the behest of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the CCF appears to be targeted by Trump because of personal animus.

And the White House has long sought to reduce government’s health care spending on poor Americans. Trump’s rescissions seek to hack $1.9 billion out of the Child Enrollment Contingency Fund, leaving only $500 million to support health care costs for America’s youngest. And another $5.1 billion would be removed from the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which “provides low-cost health coverage to children in families that earn too much money to qualify for Medicaid.” Combined, the $7 billion blow to CHIP could be devastating. Among the government’s most popular programs, CHIP provides coverage for mostly middle-class Americans and is critical to the health and survival of kids — some 9 million of them — all over the country. The White House and Freedom Caucus members of Congress tried unsuccessfully to kill CHIP funding during multiple rounds of budget debates this year but learned that voters overwhelmingly support the program and name its survival as a top priority.

Trump’s proposal to cut funding for the health care of toddlers may ultimately be his way of getting leverage over Congress to cut the public health programs created by his predecessor. He has played his hand, and the game now shifts to the House and Senate. In a statement to the press, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer described the attack on CHIP as ideological, “hurting middle-class families and low-income children, to appease the most conservative special interests and feel better about blowing up the deficit to give the wealthiest few and biggest corporations huge tax breaks.”

The danger is that, in the interest of compromise, even liberal Democrats may settle for making all of Trump’s public health cuts except for the $7 billion in CHIP funding, thereby saving a program that enjoys bipartisan voter support at the expense of several of Obama’s signature public health programs. It would be a grave mistake to do so, as protecting Americans also requires stopping outbreaks and violent conflicts overseas.

Trump has repeatedly demonstrated his disdain for science, services for the poor, diplomacy, and foreign assistance. As Bill Gates pointed out in a recent visit to the White House, Trump has yet to name a director for his Office of Science and Technology Policy, and it sits empty. He has no one in his inner circle to explain how a program for hospital hygiene in Monrovia, Liberia, decreases the likelihood that a traveler unknowingly infected with a dangerous pathogen will turn up in a hospital in Dallas.

Members of Congress should reject Trump’s entire rescission package, as it does nothing to reduce the deficit they created with their enormous tax cut package and everything to harm the health and safety of the American people.

Laurie Garrett is a former senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations and a Pulitzer Prize winning science writer. Twitter: @Laurie_Garrett

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