In a sudden reversal, President Trump declared Thursday that he has “overridden my people” and supports funding the Special Olympics despite his administration’s proposed budget cuts.
His comments come after Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spent days defending a plan to slash funding for the program that provides year-round sports training and competition to children and adults with intellectual disabilities at House and Senate budget meetings.
“The Special Olympics will be funded. I just told my people, I wanna fund the Special Olympics, and I just authorized a funding of the Special Olympics,” Trump said before leaving for an evening rally in Michigan. “I’ve been to the Special Olympics, I think it’s incredible and I just authorized a funding. I heard about it this morning. I have overridden my people. We’re funding the Special Olympics.”
Even if Trump did not speak out and reverse his administration’s stance on funding for the program, it is very unlikely it would have been defunded. After the President introduces a budget, it is marked up by House and Senate Appropriations committees, and then voted on by both the House and the Senate before the President can sign it into law.
According to the Department of Education’s Fiscal Year 2020 Budget Summary, the Special Olympics is one of 29 programs the Department claims “achieved their original purpose, duplicate other programs, are narrowly focused, or are unable to demonstrate effectiveness.”
“The Special Olympics is not a federal program. It’s a private organization. I love its work, and I have personally supported its mission,” DeVos wrote in a statement. “There are dozens of worthy nonprofits that support students and adults with disabilities that don’t get a dime of federal grant money. But given our current budget realities, the federal government cannot fund every worthy program, particularly ones that enjoy robust support from private donations.”
Trump’s Fiscal Year 2020 budget request included $64 billion for the Department of Education, a $7 billion reduction from what the Department was appropriated the year prior. The $17.6 million in public funding the Special Olympics received this year made up about 10% of its overall revenue, but not even 0.1% of the Department’s annual budget.
DeVos’ proposal was quickly met with criticism in Congress.
“Madam Secretary, let me tell you what,” Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, said during a Senate hearing Thursday. “Eliminating $18 million out of a $70 or $80 billion budget I think is shameful, too. I’m not twisting it.”
Rep. Mark Pocan, a Democrat from Wisconsin, had previously reminded her that 272,000 kids would be impacted by her proposed cuts.
But Democrats were not the only ones to speak up in opposition to the lack of Special Olympics funding.
When asked whether he supported the proposed cuts, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said he didn’t. “No. I fully support Special Olympics,” the California Republican said.
Sen. Roy Blunt, a Republican from Missouri, also expressed criticism: “I’m a longtime supporter of the Special Olympics and proud that Missouri is home to the largest Special Olympics training facility in the world,” he said in a statement. “I was just at the World Games and saw, as I have many times before, what a huge impact the organization has on athletes, their families, and their communities. Our Department of Education appropriations bill will not cut funding for the program.”
Maria Shriver, daughter of Special Olympics founder Eunice Shriver and a member of the Kennedy family, also spoke out.
Meanwhile, deputy communications director for Trump’s re-election campaign, Matt Wolking, defended the proposed budget cut via Twitter this week.
“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,” he wrote, adding that the organization saw a $1.8 million surplus in Fiscal Year 2016.
After Trump’s comments Thursday, Special Olympic supporters including Shriver expressed relief that the funding is expected to remain intact.
“Amazing. Incredible. This stunning @SpecialOlympics news is making me cry. This is what happens when we come together and stand up and speak out for what we believe and know is right.”
Special Olympics Chairman Tim Shriver — Maria’s brother — also reacted to the news on social media, tweeting out “we did it.”