WASHINGTON — After a two-day thrashing over her department’s proposal to eliminate funding for the Special Olympics, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos sat before senators on Thursday ready to defend it again.
“As I said then, and I’ll say again, we had to make tough choices and decisions around the budget priorities,” Ms. DeVos told Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat. She even went on to tell him in a fiery exchange to “not use disabled children in a twisted way for your political narrative.”
But when President Trump triumphantly declared Thursday evening that he had “overridden my people” and saved the Special Olympics, Ms. DeVos seemed to have taken enough blame.
“I am pleased and grateful the president and I see eye-to-eye on this issue, and that he has decided to fund our Special Olympics grant,” Ms. DeVos said. “This is funding I have fought for behind-the-scenes over the last several years.”
It was an unusual move for Ms. DeVos, who has gone to great lengths to publicly support the president even when she and her staff have disagreed with the administration’s policy positions. And it has kicked off fresh speculation that Ms. DeVos might be the next member of the cabinet to fall to the commander in chief’s capricious whims.
For months, Mr. Trump has mocked Ms. DeVos to other aides, making clear that he considers her expendable, according to West Wing officials. When Ms. DeVos was out of office after an injury many weeks ago, White House officials expected that her absence would be used as an opportunity to replace her. That didn’t happen.
But Mr. Trump is not fond of her, White House officials say, and he had no problem making her appear to be the bad actor in relation to the Special Olympics.
Even Representative Mark Pocan, Democrat of Wisconsin, whose questions about the program cuts on Tuesday caused the media firestorm over the Special Olympics, was surprised by the turn of events.
“I’m extremely glad that the American people have convinced President Trump to do the right thing with Special Olympics,” Mr. Pocan said. “However, it shouldn’t take public outcry and shaming to restore funding to one of our nation’s most important special education programs.”
“And by the way, can someone pull Betsy from under the bus?” he added.
Those with knowledge of Ms. DeVos’s relationship with the White House say she and the president have a positive working relationship, communicate regularly — and that he has generally seen her as a team player and one of the most effective at hard-charging his policy priorities. He has complimented her publicly, and once, even stopped a meeting to have a group of stakeholders go around the room and praise her efforts to rewrite campus sexual assault rules, according to an official with knowledge of the meeting.
“I think the president chose her because he realizes that she is committed to taking the arrows and pursuing the agenda that’s 100 percent committed to students,” said Matt Frendewey, who served as Ms. DeVos’s communications director at the outset of her tenure.
When the Trump administration moved to scrap protections for transgender students to use the bathroom of their choice, Ms. DeVos raised strong objections with the president, but in the end, she went along with the plan spearheaded by Jeff Sessions, the attorney general at the time. And when she was appointed head of a federal school safety commission after the school massacre in Parkland, Fla., Ms. DeVos was charged by Mr. Sessions and the White House with scrutinizing a seemingly unrelated policy on racial disparities in school discipline. Her staff urged her to push back, according to officials familiar with the decision.
But she soldiered on. She even issued a statement praising Mr. Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on climate change, though it had nothing to do with education.
But the president’s proclamation on Thursday evening left her taking the fall for a proposed funding cut to a program for people with special needs that she had personally supported in the past. Her tart reaction was a rare public display of pique after she once again had been served up as a punching bag for the administration.
Of course, Congress, which actually makes the spending decisions, has no intention of cutting the Special Olympics grants — which his budget has proposed for the past two years — so Mr. Trump restored nothing. Three days before the cut was revealed in his budget request for the fiscal year that begins this October, the White House had announced with fanfare that Karen Pence, the second lady of the United States, would lead the American delegation to the games.
For that matter, nor did Mr. Trump fully fund an ongoing cleanup of the Great Lakes that he took credit for in Grand Rapids, Mich., on Thursday night. His budget has annually proposed to slash the Great Lakes restoration program, and Congress has annually ignored him.
According to people familiar with the budget process, the proposal to eliminate funding for the Special Olympics was pushed through by the acting White House chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, and his staff in the Office of Management and Budget, which has the power to change and reject budget requests and does so regularly for all government agencies. Mr. Mulvaney, who helped found the hard-line Freedom Caucus in the House, has brought those sensibilities to the White House, not always with Mr. Trump’s knowledge or support.
Mr. Durbin acknowledged that fact, saying that “whoever came up with the idea at O.M.B. deserved a Special Olympic gold medal for insensitivity.”
It was among more than two dozen programs that the office has consistently identified for elimination or reduction because they were deemed ineffective or inappropriate for federal funding. Among other programs targeted is $1 billion in after-school programs that serve low-income children, funding for arts education and a program serving gifted students.
The position of the administration has been that the Special Olympics is not a federal program, but a private one that has been able to raise $100 million annually and should be supported by the philanthropic community.
“There are dozens of worthy nonprofits that support students and adults with disabilities that don’t get a dime of federal grant money,” Ms. DeVos said in a statement defending the cut earlier this week. “But given our current budget realities, the federal government cannot fund every worthy program, particularly ones that enjoy robust support from private donations.”
Privately, Ms. DeVos argued since the administration’s first budget proposal in 2017 that the cut was insensitive and unnecessary. The program fell into a category of ones that budget office staff targeted for cuts because its benefits could not be measured. Ms. DeVos argued the measurement for the Special Olympics, and other programs, should be how it affects children. She was overruled. In 2018, Ms. DeVos, a billionaire businesswoman, decided to donate a portion of her annual salary to the program.
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