Trump promises to "defeat AIDS," but his track record leaves critics skeptical

By Kate Smith

/ CBS News

President Donald Trump vowed to eradicate HIV/AIDS in the next decade during his State of the Union address on Tuesday night.

"My budget will ask Democrats and Republicans to make the needed commitment to eliminate the HIV epidemic in the United States within 10 years," Mr. Trump said during the address Tuesday night. "Together, we will defeat AIDS in America."

Critics aren't convinced Mr. Trump can deliver on that promise. In a tweet Tuesday night, Representative Barbara Lee, the co-founder and co-chair of the Congressional HIV/AIDS Caucus, wrote that the president's "record on HIV has been abysmal."

President Trump’s record on HIV has been abysmal. If he’s serious about the epidemic, he can start rebuilding trust by making serious investments in lifesaving HIV/AIDS programs like Ryan White and ending the attacks on LGBTQ Americans. #SOTU

— Rep. Barbara Lee (@RepBarbaraLee) February 6, 2019

In the campaign to end the disease, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and senior public health officials told the Associated Press that they planned to focus on highly impacted areas and getting drugs to people at risk. More than one million Americans live with the disease, and there are about 40,000 new cases of the infection each year, according to the AP. Even though it's a significant reduction from the disease's crisis years, progress has stalled.

"We've never had that kind of 'This is the target,'" Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government's pre-eminent AIDS warrior and head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said to the AP. The government has "been trying to address HIV, but never in such a focused way," he said.

But not everyone is as hopeful. In a statement, AIDS United and other groups said, "We stand ready to work with him and his administration if they are serious. But to date, this administration's actions speak louder than words and have moved us in the wrong direction."

In its 2018 proposed budget, the Trump administration proposed diverting money away from HIV/AIDS research to fund detention centers for undocumented immigrant children. The Department of Health and Human Services offered to reallocate $260 million from its own budget to help fund the Unaccompanied Alien Children Program, according to a letter to Senator Patty Murray, D-Washington, and other lawmakers.

The letter outlined a plan that would cut about $10 million from HIV/AIDS research and treatment initiatives.

In a comment to CNN in September, an HHS official said that the only reallocation that had happened last year was $17 million in the Ryan White HIV/AIDS program, which offers services to low-income people living with the disease. According to the Health Resources and Services Administration, "more than half of people living with diagnosed HIV in the United States receive services through the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program each year."

Mr. Trump also let the Office of National AIDS Policy, an executive branch task force, languish for nearly two years after failing to appoint a director and terminating all the members of the council. The office's landing page within the White House's website leads to a 404 error. In December, Azar announced that two new co-chairs had been announced and would be starting in January, according to the Washington Post.

During his tenure as attorney general under former President George H.W. Bush, Mr. Trump's pick for attorney general, William Barr, oversaw a program that sent some 12,000 Haitian asylum seekers to Guantanamo Bay, effectively creating what one detractor called "the world's first HIV detention camp." After operating for about 18 months, the detention system was forcibly ended by a judge in 1993, but Barr defended the practice as recently as 2001.

First published on February 6, 2019

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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