WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump said Thursday he wants the federal government to continue funding 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,” Trump told reporters. “I just told my people, I want to fund the Special Olympics ... I’ve been to the Special Olympics — I think it’s incredible, and I just authorized a funding.”
He suggested he had first heard about the budget controversy Thursday morning and that others in his administration were responsible for it, although the cut has been part of all three budgets he has proposed to Congress.
“I have overridden my people,” he said.
While Trump said he was authorizing Special Olympics funding, that decision resides with Congress.
DeVos said in a statement that she welcomed the reversal and that she had fought behind the scenes to maintain the funding. An aide said she had been overruled by the White House Office of Management and Budget.
The funding was never in any real jeopardy, with key Republicans as well as Democrats vowing to reject the cuts. 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.
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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 posted photos of family members’ medals earned at Special Olympics. Others contrasted the money spent on the program to Trump’s request for a border wall and the price of DeVos’ 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.
The dramatic reversal on Special Olympics funding is one of the first signs that Trump is beginning to feel pressure for some of the sweeping austerity measures he’s proposed, with little support from Capitol Hill.
There seems to be a growing awareness within the White House that some of these proposed cuts could emerge as major liabilities on the campaign trail.
In a similar about face, Trump later Thursday called for the government to fully fund the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, another program he repeatedly proposed cutting. Those cuts are unpopular with voters in Michigan and Ohio, states that will likely prove pivotal to his reelection.
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 insincere 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.
After Trump’s announcement, DeVos said in a statement: “I am pleased and grateful the president and I see eye to eye on this issue, and that he’s decided to fund our Special Olympics grant,” she said. “This is funding I have fought for behind the scenes over the last several years.”
Earlier in the day, she was on Capitol Hill defending the budget.
Sen. Richard 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 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.
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. Eliminating $18 million out of a $70 or $80 billion budget I think is shameful, too,” Durbin shot back, referring to the Education Department budget. “I’m not twisting it.”
For three years, 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.
On Thursday, DeVos said she was speaking for the administration, not herself, in defending the plan.
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“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 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.”
Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., who set off the controversy with his questioning of DeVos at the Tuesday hearing, said Thursday he was pleased that public pressure forced Trump to change his position after three years.
“Someone has to pull Betsy out from under the bus. This isn’t fair to her,” he said. “At some point, she’s got to decide, do you really want to be the secretary of education so badly that you let your boss do this to you?”
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The Washington Post’s Damian Paletta contributed to this report.