President Trump said Thursday he wants the federal government to continue funding the Special Olympics, an abrupt reversal from his own budget proposal that eliminated federal money for the charity and sparked bipartisan condemnation.
His statement on the South Lawn of the White House came after his education secretary, Betsy DeVos, spent three days defending the proposal, most recently at a contentious Senate hearing Thursday morning.
“The Special Olympics will be funded, I just told my people,” Trump told reporters.
The funding was never in any real jeopardy, with key Republicans vowing to maintain the allocation. But the matter was quickly becoming a political problem for the president.
Special Olympics, which gives people with intellectual disabilities the chance to compete in athletics on a world stage, has long enjoyed robust and bipartisan support.
For the third year, the Trump budget had proposed to end federal support for the organization. The issue received scant attention in years past, as lawmakers ignored the Trump proposal and instead increased the charity’s funding, which stands at $17.6 million this year.
But after DeVos was questioned about her budget plan at a congressional hearing Tuesday, word spread quickly. She drew widespread and withering attacks that extended beyond the partisan back-and-forth in Washington.
“Look, I’m not perfect but at least my obituary won’t say, ‘and in 2019, he defunded the Special Olympics,’ ” comedian Conan O’Brien wrote on Twitter.
Supporters of the Special Olympics posted photos of family members’ medals earned at the Games. Others contrasted the money spent on the program to Trump’s request for a border wall and to the price of DeVos’s family yacht.
The debate was poised to extend into the presidential campaign, serving as a proxy fight over the role of government and American values. Democrats contrasted this proposed cut against tax breaks benefiting the wealthiest Americans.
Republicans led by DeVos make the case that Special Olympics is a well-funded charity that can fend for itself.
On Thursday morning, DeVos told a Senate panel that Democratic attacks on the proposal were “disgusting” and “shameful.” Matt Wolking, deputy communications director for the Trump campaign, went further, suggesting Democrats who support abortion rights are hypocrites for supporting Special Olympics, whose competitors include people with Down syndrome.
“I’m sure Democrats who see abortion as the cure for Down syndrome and other disabilities are sincerely concerned about kids having the chance to be in the Special Olympics,” Wolking wrote on Twitter.
At a Senate appropriations hearing Thursday, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who chairs the education subcommittee, predicted Congress would again ignore most of the Education Department cuts proposed by the White House.
“There are programs here that are unlikely to be eliminated in any final budget,” Blunt said. A day earlier, he voiced support for funding Special Olympics in particular.
Wolking and DeVos noted that Special Olympics is not a government program and that it benefits from private support. The Education Department contribution represents about 10 percent of the group’s annual budget.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., asked DeVos whether she had personally approved the proposal. She said she had not but defended the decision as the result of necessary “tough choices.”
She added that she loves the organization and has donated a portion of her salary to support its work.
“I hope all of this debate encourages lots of private contributions to Special Olympics,” she said. Then addressing Democratic critics of the decision, she said: “So let’s not use disabled children in a twisted way for your political narrative. That is just disgusting, and it’s shameful.”
“Madam Secretary, let me tell you what,” Durbin shot back. “Eliminating $18 million out of a $70 or $80 billion budget I think is shameful, too. I’m not twisting it.”
For three years, President Trump has proposed steep cuts to the Education Department. The final budget plan sent to Congress would cut about $8.5 billion in spending from the agency, a 12 percent reduction.
There was no indication whether anyone inside the administration fought to keep the Special Olympics funding. Eliminating the funding has been part of all three Trump budgets.
On Thursday, DeVos said she was speaking for the administration, not herself, in defending the plan.
“As you know, [the] budget process within the administration is a collaborative one, and it’s been my responsibility to present the budget here on behalf of the administration, the president’s budget,” she told Durbin. “We had to make tough choices and decisions around the budget priorities.”
She said the administration emphasized maintaining funding for higher-priority programs, such as major initiatives that support schools with low-income children and special-education services in schools.
Pressed on whether she approved the cut to Special Olympics, DeVos said, “No, I didn’t personally get involved.”
Durbin replied by shifting the blame to the White House’s Office of Management and Budget.
“Whoever came up with that at OMB gets a Special Olympics gold medal for insensitivity,” he said. “To think that we can’t spend $18 million to support this dramatically successful venture.”
Others were frustrated by the attention to Special Olympics when Education Department programs that serve far more people were also cut or capped. Sasha Pudelski of AASA, the School Superintendents Association, noted that the Trump budget proposed flat funding for programs supporting low-income children and children with disabilities.
“Can we pls stop talking about the never-gonna-happen cuts to the Special Olympics and start talking about real impact of budget caps to programs like IDEA and Title 1?” she wrote on Twitter. “Lets discuss the real funding issues for K-12 Ed advocates.”