President Donald Trump fell back on a favorite of his incendiary lies during this week's Fox News virtual town hall: former President Barack Obama "did nothing" to fight AIDS.
The president also took credit for what he claimed would be the eradication of AIDS in the near future, which he pegged at eight years from now — the end of the first term of the president that succeeds Trump, should he win re-election.
"We will be AIDS-free within eight years," Trump said. "It should have started in the previous administration — they did nothing. It started in my administration."
The lie bubbled up in context of the efforts to make a COVID-19 vaccine — a juiced-up, all-hands global effort the president compared with the grueling, multi-pronged fight against HIV/AIDS in a thinly-veiled attempt to sidestep the politically painful reality that a COVID vaccine will not arrive as swiftly as he has falsely promised on repeat.
Criticism was acerbic.
"The suggestion that Donald Trump is going to end the AIDS epidemic while he is not providing anywhere near the level of funding necessary to put every person who is HIV-positive on treatment — let alone without a massive testing program — is ludicrous," Eric Sawyer, a founding member of ACT UP New York and co-founder of Housing Works, said.
Daniel Dale, CNN's in-house Trump fact-checker, concluded that Trump's claim about Obama's commitment to the cause was "an egregious lie" that was "not even close to true."
"The Obama administration spent more than $5.5 billion a year on the three primary domestic programs to combat HIV/AIDS," he said, citing data from the Kaiser Family Foundation, which tracks healthcare spending.
Not only did Trump fabricate Obama's past, he also fabricated his own. Far from offering his unflinching support, Trump has stripped funding from several well-established government programs dedicated to fighting AIDS. Trump has starved out agencies like the Office of National AIDS Policy (ONAP), established in 1993 under former President Bill Clinton. He still has not replaced the agency head — colloquially known as the "AIDS czar" — since his resignation upon Trump's inauguration more than three years ago. ONAP's website went dark that day, and the office closed.
Six months later, half a dozen officials checked out of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS, accusing Trump of having "no strategy" for the epidemic, wanting "zero input from experts" and pushing harmful, retrograde legislation. The president dismissed the remaining 16 members in December.
Trump has repeatedly proposed massive cuts to agency budgets, including proposals two years in a row to cut $200 million per year from CDC and Ryan White HIV/AIDS budgets. A year after he reversed course to extend the broadly popular international PEPFAR program, Trump proposed a $1.35 billion cut, along with $400 million in cuts to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. The president's border policies specifically target migrants with HIV/AIDS.
Trump also proposed cuts to domestic programs that play critical albeit medically tangential roles in HIV treatment, such as taking chunks out of mental health program budgets and slashing special housing programs by $90 million, including one which serves the disabled.
Obama, by contrast, built on foundations laid by former President George W. Bush — who dedicated much of his second term to containing the virus with an international focus (not without its criticisms) — and developed the first strategy to coordinate a national response to HIV. Further, Obamacare gave HIV-positive Americans the opportunity to get health insurance.
In 2019, when the Trump administration was developing "Ending the HIV Epidemic: A Plan for America" (with the goal of reducing new domestic infections by 75% within five years and 90% within 10 years), it acknowledged Obama's national program was the foundation.
"The domestic policies and programs of the federal government continue to be guided by the national HIV/AIDS strategy, and we are focused on working toward achieving the strategy goals for 2020," the policy announcement said.
"It's just another case of Trump lying to the American people about his terrific accomplishments while he is doing the opposite — shutting down offices, robbing budgets," Sawyer, the advocate and ACT UP NY founding member, said.
Sawyer pointed to Democratic Gov. Cuomo, who has fueled a years-long campaign to stamp out HIV in New York, effecting a 28% drop in infections since its 2014 inception. (Cuomo has also earned praise for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic in the hardest-hit state in the country.)
That same year, Dr. Anthony Fauci — the head of the National Institutes for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who is also a senior adviser to the White House coronavirus task force — lauded Cuomo's project, suggesting that it should be a national model.
"If you aggressively seek out people who are infected, get them into voluntary testing, care and treatment, the mathematical model shows a sharp deflection in the curve of people ultimately getting the infection," Fauci said at the time. "Ultimately, you can end the pandemic.