President Trump's most recent move in the government's effort to address the HIV/AIDS epidemic once again brings the administration's commitment to eradicating the disease into question, activists say.
Months after a half-dozen members of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS resigned in protest of the administration's position on health policies, the White House fired the remaining members through a form letter this week, The Post's Ben Guarino reported.
The council, whose members are not paid, has advised the White House on HIV/AIDS policies for more than two decades, specifically offering recommendations on the National HIV/AIDS Strategy, a five-year plan responding to the epidemic.
The group includes “doctors, members of industry, members of the community and, very importantly, people living with HIV,” Scott Schoettes, a lawyer with the LGBT rights organization Lambda Legal, told The Post. “Without it, you lose the community voice in policymaking.” Schoettes was one of the council members who resigned in June.
The latest move was met with sharp rebukes from organizations that work on issues related to HIV/AIDS. The White House has not responded to a request for comment.
Sarah Ellis, president and chief executive of GLAAD, a LGBT rights advocacy organization, said Trump's move was part of pattern to leave LBGTQ people behind.
“Trump began the month by erasing LGBTQ people from his World AIDS Day statement, and ends it by firing all remaining members of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS without warning,” she said. “In his first year in office, President Trump has made a continuous effort to erase LGBTQ people and people living with HIV from the fabric of our country — actions that fly in the face of American values and that all fair-minded Americans will continue to push back against in the new year.”
Phill Wilson, president and chief executive of the nonprofit Black AIDS Institute, spoke on a Washington Post panel this month about the broad impact of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, saying “we're all impacted by the disease, and the response to it is the responsibility of all of us.” His organization said on Facebook that Trump's latest move especially affects black Americans:
"45 continues his utter disregard for HIV/AIDS issues and subsequently Black Americans who are the most affected. He has fired the remaining 16 members of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS.”
Trump's decision was unusual in timing and concerning considering his inaction on other issues related to HIV/AIDS, William McColl, AIDS United vice president for policy and advocacy, told The Fix in a statement:
“While AIDS United recognizes that it is within the Trump administration’s purview to appoint PACHA members, and previous new administrations also asked for the resignations of entire council memberships, we are very concerned about the timing and lack of transparency surrounding today’s dismissals. Most new administrations appoint their own councils early in their terms, not after almost a year in office. Additionally, it is quite unusual to take such action between Christmas and New Year’s, when much of Washington is closed and their PACHA members are home celebrating the holidays with loved ones.”
Trump has found himself in the headlines recently over several alleged comments — or the lack of — related to HIV and AIDS. The New York Times reported that the president “grumbled” about 15,000 Haitian immigrants coming to the U.S. since the beginning of the year. They “all have AIDS,” he said, according to one person who attended the meeting and another person who was briefed about it by a different person who was there. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders denied the comments.
Trump was criticized earlier this month for his World AIDS Day pronouncement that did not acknowledge how blacks are disproportionately affected by the illness. Nearly half — 48 percent — of those diagnosed with AIDS in the United States are African Americans, according to 2015 statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson wrote that America's legacy of combating AIDS globally is “at risk” under Trump: “The Trump administration’s 2018 budget proposes cutting $800 million in America’s bilateral HIV/AIDS programs. And neither South Africa nor Nigeria would be in the 'priority' category in the State Department's new AIDS strategy, despite together being home to about a quarter of the AIDS cases in the world.”
Democratic Coalition co-founder Scott Dworkin chastised Trump for the way members of the HIV/AIDS council were let go this week.
“Trump fired every single member of his HIV/AIDS council without telling them why,” he tweeted. “Not only that, he did it in a letter sent via FedEx. He didn't even pick up the phone & call them. Laziest & most cruel president in the history of the United States-and obviously a complete coward.”
Activists claim that much of the progress in the global fight against AIDS was made in part because of the support from the Oval Office. Trump's approach leaves those concerned about the future of the disease with more questions than answers. And at worst, these questions appear to stoke fears that progress could be undone without the support of the White House.