Did Trump Inherit a 'Depleted' Stockpile of Ventilators From Obama?

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U.S. President Donald Trump repeatedly tried to buck the blame for the "empty cupboards" of federal emergency medical supplies.
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At the onset of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, U.S. President Donald Trump repeatedly claimed that he inherited a "bare" Strategic National Stockpile (SNS) that lacked an adequate supply of ventilators from the administration of former President Barack Obama, hindering Trump's ability to adequately respond to the growing number of coronavirus cases across the nation. We revisited the timeline of the pandemic and the various (and contradictory) statements issued by Trump and his administration to check the accuracy of this claim.

The SNS is overseen by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and is allocated as a resource to supplement state and local authorities in their response to public health emergencies. In addition to many state stockpiles, the federal stockpile includes medicines, supplies, and devices needed for life-saving care that are strategically located at secret warehouse locations around the country.

According to a timeline published by the Department of Health and Human Services, the stockpile has been used at least 13 times since its 1999 creation, including during responses to the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, and 2005 hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

A mechanical ventilator is a breathing machine used to assist a patient suffering from respiratory distress, or a condition that makes it difficult for them to breathe on their own. SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus responsible for the 2020 pandemic, causes COVID-19, one such respiratory condition that can make it difficult for an infected person to breathe on their own.

Concern over whether the U.S. had enough ventilators took center stage in early 2020 — shortly after the coronavirus outbreak was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization on March 11. When New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo asked the federal government for additional ventilators, Trump responded by criticizing Cuomo's handling of the pandemic, saying that the state should have stockpiled ventilators.

During a March 26 press briefing, Trump tried to buck the blame for a shortage of ventilators, saying that he had taken over an "empty shelf." The president reiterated the claim just over a week later, adding that the depleted stockpile he supposedly inherited impacted his administration's ability to respond to the pandemic.

Hey, I inherited — we, this administration — we inherited a broken system, both militarily, but we've rebuilt our military where we now have so much ammunition, whereas you remember a very important general said, "Sir, we have no ammunition." They wanted to save money on ammunition. They didn't want to save money because they spent money like nobody ever spent money. But you know what? We now have a great military rebuilt. And we have so much ammunition, we don't know what to do with it. Okay? And that's a nice feeling to have. But they also gave us empty cupboards. The cupboard was bare. You've heard the expression: "The cupboard was bare." So we took over a stockpile where the cupboard was bare and where the testing system was broken and old. And we redid it.

Though Trump repeatedly blamed the Obama administration for leaving behind an empty stockpile and falsely took credit for restocking the ventilator supplies, he said on more than one occasion that the U.S. had enough ventilators in the weeks following the pandemic declaration. In the April 7 press briefing, Admiral Brett Giroir, assistant secretary of HHS, said that the number of ventilators is not a "number that we give out" but said that there were thousands remaining in the stockpile. Trump quickly added that there were 9,000 breathing machines.

In an April 8 Tweet, the White House said that it had shipped out 8,000 ventilators and had an "additional 10,000 ready to go." An op-ed written by Vice President Mike Pence added that the SNS "hadn't been refilled since the H1N1 influenza outbreak in 2009, and it had only 10,000 ventilators on hand" in March — an inadequate number given the extent of the pandemic — but that by the June 16 publication of his piece, there were more than 30,000 ventilators in the SNS and that the administration was "well on [its] way to building 100,000 ventilators in 100 days." It appeared that the Trump administration initially recognized that the ventilator supply was inadequate to respond to the pandemic, but failed to supplement the limited inventory despite promises to do so.

The discrepancy continued well into 2020. Some references:

On April 19, Trump referred to the U.S. as the "King of Ventilators," yet continued to attempt to deflect blame for the nationwide shortage of breathing machines:

In a…
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