Why Trump’s efforts to blame Obama for the coronavirus make absolutely no sense

By Aaron Rupar

Former President Barack Obama meets with Donald Trump in the White House in November 2016, days after Trump won the presidential election.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Barack Obama left office in January 2017. The coronavirus didn’t arrive in the United States until three years later. Yet over the weekend, President Donald Trump repeatedly tried to pin blame on his predecessor for the testing failures and shortage of medical supplies that have marred his administration’s response to the pandemic.

“I started with an obsolete, broken system from a previous administration,” Trump claimed during his daily press briefing on Saturday, later adding: “Unfortunately, some partisan voices are attempting to politicize the issue of testing, which they shouldn’t be doing, because I inherited broken junk. Just as they did with ventilators where we had virtually none, and the hospitals were empty.”

Trump sounded the same theme on Sunday. Asked by ultra-sycophantic One America News Network if he sees the government’s testing failures as “a function of lax oversight from the Obama/Biden administration,” Trump indicated he does.

“We inherited a lot of garbage,” Trump said. “We took, ah, they had tests that were no good, they had, all the stuff was no good. It came from somewhere, so whoever came up with it.”

“Our stockpiles were empty,” he added. “We had horrible stockpiles, we had horrible ventilators, we had very few of them too ... CDC had obsolete tests, old tests, broken tests, and a mess.”

This is totally nonsensical. The CDC couldn’t have bad tests left over from the Obama administration, because the coronavirus test didn’t exist until this year. And the stockpile was far from empty — its problem was that it was poorly maintained, an issue that rests on the Trump administration’s shoulders.

Of course, it’s not surprising that Trump is trying to blame Obama. His political rise was fueled by pushing racist conspiracy theories about America’s first black president, and a central theme of Trump’s political life is trying to erase Obama’s legacy across a spectrum of issues. But even by Trump’s standards, the brazenness involved in this particular effort to rewrite history is jarring.

So while it’s a sad commentary on our times that such an examination is even necessary, what follows is a look at why Obama is not, in fact, to blame for the coronavirus killing more people in America than in any other country.

Trump was president for three full years before the coronavirus hit

First of all, Trump was president for three full years before the first official coronavirus case was reported in the US on January 20, 2020. However, Trump failed to start replenishing the national stockpiles of ventilators, masks, and other medical supplies. (In fact, Trump actually fired the government’s pandemic response team in spring 2018.)

Beyond that, it’s simply not the case that Obama left the national stockpiles empty. FactCheck.org recently detailed how news reports in 2016 described the warehouses that store the Strategic National Stockpile as “packed with stuff,” filled with “row after row of containers filled with mystery medications and equipment — including that one item everyone’s been talking about lately, ventilators.”

Last month, Dr. Anthony Fauci said there were nearly 13,000 ventilators in the national stockpile. Some of them were broken down. That total may not have been enough to meet the demands created by the coronavirus, but even when it became clear that additional supply was required, Trump was slow to act.

The Associated Press, citing a review of federal purchasing contracts, recently reported that federal agencies “largely waited until mid-March to begin placing bulk orders of N95 respirator masks, mechanical ventilators and other equipment needed by front-line health care workers.”

“By that time, hospitals in several states were treating thousands of infected patients without adequate equipment and were pleading for shipments from the Strategic National Stockpile,” the AP added. So not only did Trump do nothing to replenish the national stockpile during his first three years in office, but he also waited nearly two months after the first US coronavirus case to begin addressing its shortfalls.

Blaming Obama for the CDC’s testing failures is totally absurd

Perhaps the federal government’s biggest coronavirus-related failure was the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) testing mishaps. Instead of using kits developed by the World Health Organization (WHO), the CDC insisted on developing its own. But its initial tests didn’t work reliably, resulting in a delay that allowed the virus to spread across the country in a mostly undetected manner in February and early March.

As previously mentioned, Trump on Sunday tried to blame Obama for this. Watch:

But Trump’s talking point that the CDC “had obsolete tests, old tests, broken tests” because of Obama makes absolutely no sense.

A test for the novel coronavirus obviously couldn’t be developed before the virus was discovered, which first happened in China in late 2019 — nearly three years after Obama left office. Responsibility for the CDC’s decision not to use the WHO coronavirus test and its subsequent failure to develop its own in January and February rest entirely with the organization and its leadership, including CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield, whom Trump appointed to the role in March 2018.

Obama literally provided Trump with a blueprint

In addition, the Trump administration failed to follow a detailed pandemic response playbook put together by Obama’s National Security Council in 2016. A recent report from Politico detailed how following that document’s guidance could’ve resulted in the Trump administration responding in a quicker and more decisive manner:

The playbook also repeatedly urges officials to question official numbers about the viral spread. “What is our level of confidence on the case detection rate?” reads one question. “Is diagnostic capacity keeping up?” But across January and much of February, Trump administration officials publicly insisted that their diagnostic efforts were sufficient to detect coronavirus. Officials now privately concede that the administration’s well-documented testing problems have contributed to the outbreak’s silent spread across the United States, and health experts say that diagnostic capacity is only now in late March catching up to the need.

In a subsequent section, the playbook details steps to take if there’s evidence that the virus is spreading among humans, which the World Health Organization concluded by Jan. 22, or the U.S. government declared a public health emergency, which HHS Secretary Alex Azar did on Jan. 31.

Under that timeline, the federal government by late January should have been taking a lead role in “coordination of workforce protection activities including… [personal protective equipment] determination, procurement and deployment.” Those efforts are only now getting underway, health workers and doctors say.

Unnamed Trump officials quoted in the piece provide a variety of excuses for why the 2016 playbook was discarded — “it’s quite dated and has been superseded by strategic and operational biodefense policies published since,” one said — but let’s be real. The thought of using a playbook developed in the Obama years is antithetical to everything Trump is. Even if following it would’ve been in the best interests of the country, he wouldn’t do it.

Perhaps the truest thing Trump has said during his presidency was this remark on March 13: “I don’t take responsibility at all.” Part of that approach to governance involves finding others to blame when things go wrong. In the case of the coronavirus, Trump’s list of scapegoats has included the media, Democratic governors, the WHO, China, and now Obama.

Even if blaming Obama doesn’t make any sense (and it doesn’t), Trump clearly thinks it’s a politically useful talking point that takes some of the heat off him (and perhaps shifts some to Joe Biden). For this president, what matters is saying what’s necessary to win the news cycle — logical coherence or even a chronological sense of time be damned.

Support Vox’s explanatory journalism

Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.