WASHINGTON — After seven weeks of downplaying the threat of a looming pandemic, President Donald Trump has gone back to a favorite well: blaming his predecessor, Barack Obama.
“We inherited a broken, obsolete system,” Trump said Sunday, the third straight White House briefing in which he has blamed his administration’s slow response to the coronavirus pandemic on Obama, even though Trump has been in office now a full three years and two months.
“We took over an obsolete, broken testing system that wouldn’t have worked for even a small problem, let alone one of the biggest pandemics in history,” Trump said Saturday, a day after claiming: “We inherited a broken, old — frankly, a terrible system.”
It is unclear what “system” Trump was referring to. His administration’s failure to aggressively ramp up coronavirus testing in early February and prepare hospitals for a surge of critical respiratory cases, experts said, was largely due to his own attempts to downplay the virus to avoid hurting the stock market and, in turn, his own reelection.
“His entire campaign this year will be to blame someone for what’s happening,” said Joe Walsh, a former Illinois congressman who unsuccessfully ran against Trump for the 2020 nomination. “The Chinese, Obama, the scientists and experts.”
White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham did not respond to a HuffPost request for comment.
Trump’s blame of Obama comes even as Trump ignored warnings from his own Department of Health and Human Services last October that a pandemic would overwhelm the country’s ability to deal with it, as well as a similar briefing prepared by the outgoing Obama administration in January 2017. More recently, Trump ignored intelligence community reports this January and February that the virus was spreading far more rapidly in China than its government was letting on, The Washington Post reported.
“Donald Trump disregarded warnings from his top medical and intelligence experts about this outbreak for months, while lying to the American people about the overwhelming threat we faced,” said Andrew Bates, a spokesman for likely Democratic nominee Joe Biden, who served as Obama’s vice president. “This is a historic failure of leadership that every American is paying for.”
Trump in 2018 also dismantled the pandemic response team Obama created three years earlier following an Ebola outbreak in Africa. That had been led at the National Security Council level within the White House, and eliminating that structure hurt the administration’s ability to respond to the new virus quickly, wrote Beth Cameron, who ran the office.
“He wants to blame everybody but himself,” said Norman Ornstein, a scholar with the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute. “But we know that every action he took, including disbanding the pandemic unit, was to do the opposite of what Obama did.”
Trump has also repeatedly — and inaccurately — criticized Obama for his handling of the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, falsely claiming that Obama ignored that problem. On Sunday, he said that was the reason he has not tried to contact Obama for advice with the coronavirus pandemic.
Reaching out to predecessors had been a common practice among modern presidents, but not for Trump, who frequently claims that he is smarter than those who came before him.
Attacking the nation’s first Black president raised Trump’s profile in the Republican Party a decade ago, when he became the most prominent “birther” to spread the lie that Obama had not been born in the United States and therefore was an illegitimate president.
Trump claimed he had sent investigators to Hawaii to look into Obama’s birth certificate and that “they cannot believe what they’re finding.” None of that was true, but his enthusiastic support for the conspiracy theory helped make him an early favorite in the 2016 Republican primaries.
Attacking Obama was a common theme among candidates in that race. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz frequently rallied his audiences by promising to “repeal every word of Obamacare” and rip the Iranian nuclear deal “to shreds” on his first day in office. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio even suggested that Obama’s policies were not merely misguided, but intentionally designed to hurt America.
Trump, though, went far beyond anyone else, and would call Obama and his policies “stupid” and claimed that Obama was incompetent.
Since taking office, Trump has continued to call Obama’s presidency a failure, even as he has taken credit for his accomplishments. Trump has repeatedly claimed that he got the VA Choice Act passed into law to give veterans the ability to see a private doctor if wait times at VA clinics grew too long. In fact, Obama signed that into law in 2014. More broadly, Trump had called the economy during his term the best in history, even though Obama oversaw the creation of 1.5 million more jobs in his last three years than Trump had in his first three and the GDP growth rates have been roughly the same.
And in recent campaign rallies, Trump had started calling Obama “Barack Hussein Obama” again — a huge applause line for his audiences and a touchstone back to the idea that Obama was somehow not really American.
“Yes, in his album of greatest hits, going after Barack Hussein Obama is his single greatest hit,” said Walsh, who, as a former conservative talk radio host, himself used racial and ethnic slurs against Obama, for which he has since apologized. “No other dog whistle, outside of going after brown people coming across the border, will rile up his base more.”
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