President Trump backs off proposal to cut Special Olympics funds

Announcement comes as Special Olympic Games for Southeast Georgia takes place

ST. MARYS, Ga. – President Donald Trump announced Thursday that he was backing off a budget request to eliminate funding for the Special Olympics, reversing course after his administration weathered days of criticism for the proposed cut.

Speaking to reporters as he left the White House for a rally in Michigan, Trump said he had authorized funding for the event. "I heard about it this morning. I have overridden my people. We're funding the Special Olympics."

Trump's announcement came after Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spent days defending the proposal, which drew widespread criticism from lawmakers, as well as advocates and celebrities. Even before the president stepped in, legislators said the cut was unlikely to be approved.

The president added: "I've been to the Special Olympics. I think it's incredible."

His comments came hours after Senate Democrats grilled DeVos during a budget hearing on the proposal. She was also pressed by House Democrats days earlier, sparking a wave of criticism online.

In a heated exchange with Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., DeVos said she "wasn't personally involved" in pushing for elimination of the funding, but she defended it as her agency seeks to cut $7 billion for the 2020 budget.

"Let's not use disabled children in a twisted way for your political narrative," DeVos told Durbin. "That is just disgusting and it's shameful and I think we should move on from that."

Durbin countered that it would be shameful to pull support for the Special Olympics, saying "someone has to accept responsibility for a bad decision."

The Trump administration's education budget proposal calls for the elimination of $17.6 million in funding for the Special Olympics, amounting to roughly 10 percent of the group's overall revenue. Most of its funding comes from individual and corporate contributions and other fundraising efforts.

DeVos said her department had to make "tough choices" on the budget and insisted the Special Olympics should be supported through private donations.

But according to the Special Olympics, those private contributions pay for thousands of nationwide events and the federal funding is needed for providing critical education services in schools.

Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay hosts the 23rd Annual Special Olympics on Thursday.
Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay hosts the 23rd Annual Special Olympics on Thursday.

One of those events, the Special Olympics for the Southeast Georgia region, took place Thursday at Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, with more than 400 student-athletes participating. It was the 23rd year sailors got to pair up with an athlete. More than 1,000 people were in attendance, including parents Danny and Darla Sanchez, who have brought their 21-year-old son, Alex, to the event for more than a decade.

"We look forward to it because he just likes the company and to be around other kids," Danny Sanchez said. "So it’s always good for him and us to watch it."

For more than 50 years, the Special Olympics has provided sports training, competition and learning opportunities for children and adults with disabilities nationwide, including in Southeast Georgia and Northeast Florida.

Before the president's announcement, the Sanchezes, along with several others at Thursday's event, said they couldn't believe DeVos' agency wanted to pull federal funding for Special Olympics. Laura Palmer, mother of 14-year-old Wilson, said DeVos clearly doesn’t understand what the Special Olympics community means to those who participate.

"She just needs to see what these children can do," Palmer said. "I think she should be ashamed. She needs to come here. I don't understand why should would do that." 

Special Olympics is asking for support by signing an online letter. Click here to do so.

Trump officials previously called for the elimination of Special Olympics funding in their budget proposal for 2019, but Congress rejected the idea. Lawmakers from both parties said they would reject it again for 2020.