Former Vice President Joe Biden's campaign has recently stepped up its attacks on President Trump's pandemic preparedness, drawing what could be one of the most consequential battle lines of the presidential race amid the coronavirus crisis. A widely cited USA Today fact-check, which found that the Obama administration had allowed the N95 mask stockpile to deplete, has become a flashpoint in that increasingly murky and numbers-heavy debate.
In its fiscal 2011 budget, submitted in early 2010, the Obama administration explicitly sought a reduction in the SNS: "CDC requests $523,533,000 for the Strategic National Stockpile in FY 2011, a decrease of $72,216,000 below the FY 2010 Omnibus," the budget request reads.
The document went on to make clear that $68,515,000 would separately be transferred to the SNS from the fiscal 2009 appropriation for an H1N1-related fund, meaning that overall, the strategic stockpile would receive $592,048,000 -- a reduction of only a few million dollars from the previous year.
The Obama administration also sought a $47.572 million cut to the stockpile in fiscal 2013, a $38.190 million cut to the stockpile in fiscal 2014, and a smaller drop of at least several million dollars in fiscal 2015.
Indeed, the Obama administration's budget requests implicitly reference the Budget Control Act several times. The fiscal 2013 budget, for example, states that the "current fiscal climate necessitates scaling back" even though the SNS is a "key resource."
And, the fiscal 2015 budget states: "CDC has always sought to maximize the effectiveness of resources and investments, and is even more focused on doing so in the current fiscal environment."
Not so, the Trump campaign counters.
Wolking continued: "Biden’s administration also repeatedly tried to cut funding for the stockpile, including before any budget caps existed. Regardless, the Obama-Biden budget proposals repeatedly ignored the caps, so they are no excuse. Biden’s defenses simply don’t hold water."
The Ebola and Zika virus outbreaks prompted the Obama administration to seek budget supplementals that could have replenished the SNS by 2016, but securing congressional authorization proved challenging. In 2016, when Congress green-lit funds to combat the Zika virus, the CDC received less than half of what the Obama administration sought.
"Instead of building on the strong foundation left to him by the Obama-Biden administration, Trump scrapped the office, threw out the playbook, and wasted months ignoring the threat of the coronavirus instead of securing ventilators, personal protective equipment, and other life-saving supplies," Gwin continued.
Trump counters that the Obama-Biden administration left his own with "empty cupboards."
A PolitiFact analysis notes that while the inventory was not actually bare, there still was not enough to handle the coronavirus pandemic, particularly when it came to N95 masks depleted in the wake of H1N1.
Recalling the budget battles of the prior administration, the analysis notes stockpile funding dropped to its lowest level in 2013 -- about $477 million -- but those levels have steadily grown since, including under Trump.
The Trump campaign has also argued that Biden has misstated Trump's record and mishandled the crisis. For example, Biden condemned Trump's "xenophobia" shortly after he announced a restriction on travel from China on Jan. 31, although the Biden team has denied that the former vice president was referring specifically to the travel ban. Those travel restrictions have been adopted by other countries, and experts credit them with saving lives.
Additionally, Biden has claimed that Trump himself successfully slashed the CDC budget, and Biden has suggested that he would never pursue similar cuts. The Associated Press has noted that those claims "distort" the facts, with FactCheck.org pointing out that CDC funding has actually increased under the current administration, largely because Congress insisted on maintaining funding levels for both CDC and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) even as the Trump administration sought the CDC cuts.
Nevertheless, speaking to ABC News' “This Week” on March 1, Biden claimed: “They’ve cut the funding for the CDC.”
Biden stepped up his attacks on social media as well, writing on Twitter: "Donald Trump's careless, shortsighted actions left our nation ill-prepared and now Americans are paying the price."
And, at a virtual town hall on Wednesday, Biden remarked that coronavirus had "magnified some of our worst systemic inequities," and that black and Hispanic communities are suffering higher infection and death rates than white communities.
Streaming live to some 1,621 viewers on YouTube, Biden, whose comments were sometimes muddled, added: “It’s sick, it’s troubling, it’s wrong -- and we’re going to fight back with everything we’ve got."
"That's unconscionable," he concluded. "We need more data on how Latinos and other communities of color are impacted, so we know exactly what has to be done."
Amid the finger-pointing, it emerged in March that the United States was ranked the best-prepared country in the world to handle a pandemic in late 2019 by the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) and the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security (JHCHS) -- an assessment seemingly at odds with claims by Democrats that the Trump administration left the country vulnerable to the ongoing coronavirus outbreak.
For his part, Trump has focused less on the numbers and more on perceived competency. At coronavirus task force briefing Wednesday at the White House, Trump noted that Biden still hadn't secured the endorsement of his former boss, even after rival Bernie Sanders dropped out of the race and made him the presumptive nominee.
"There's something he feels is wrong," Trump remarked. "He knows something that you don't know, that I think I know."