WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump called Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar this weekend to say his job is safe after reports the White House may oust the health chief as the administration faces criticism over its coronavirus response.
The call, described by a person familiar with the matter, and a Trump tweet on Sunday backing Azar came after multiple news accounts saying some officials within the White House had discussed his dismissal and potential replacements. Azar also weighed in on Twitter, praising Trump’s leadership and saying reports he’s about to be replaced are fake.
Dismissing the nation’s top health official in the middle of a pandemic would amount to acknowledgment the U.S. response hasn’t been as good as Trump has portrayed it. With more than 54,000 dead from COVID-19 in the U.S. — the highest number of the world — Trump has come under criticism for being slow to respond to the outbreak.
The president said in his Sunday tweet that the media is unfairly portraying his administration as chaotic. “Alex is doing an excellent job!” he wrote.
High-level people at the White House have told Azar he’s not about to be removed. But some officials believe that Azar’s adversaries in the administration are trying to undermine him by promoting a narrative that he’s in trouble.
Azar’s standing within the White House has become the source of speculation in recent weeks. At a staff meeting on Friday, the secretary said to remain focused on the virus response and serving the country — a tacit acknowledgment of speculation about his standing.
Questions about the relationship between Azar and Trump arose after an April 11 New York Times report chronicling the early months of the COVID-19 outbreak. The newspaper reported that Azar warned Trump of the possibility of a pandemic as early as a Jan. 30 phone call — only to be told he was being alarmist.
Trump reduced Azar’s authority after Nancy Messonnier, the director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, shook markets with a warning that severe mitigation steps would need to be undertaken, the Times also reported.
The president spent days criticizing the account on social media. Messonier’s warnings have mostly turned out to be accurate as the U.S. approaches 1 million coronavirus cases.
Former Trump campaign adviser Michael Caputo was then installed as the new assistant secretary for public affairs at the health department in a move widely interpreted as a bid by the White House to place a loyalist at the top level. But Caputo’s hiring generated negative press after CNN unearthed now-deleted tweets in which he wrote that “millions of Chinese suck the blood out of rabid bats as an appetizer and eat the ass out of anteaters.”
Days later, the Wall Street Journal reported that Azar had been sidelined after frustrations that he oversold his agency’s accomplishments during the early stages of the outbreak. Azar came under particular criticism, the Journal reported, for blocking outside labs from involvement in the creation of a coronavirus diagnostic test — only to see a manufacturing flaw cripple the government’s version, delaying an essential virus response tool.
Some in the White House also mocked Azar’s chief of staff, Brian Harrison, who managed the coronavirus response, according to Reuters. Harrison, a longtime Republican aide, didn’t have formal training in public health, though had worked at other government agencies. He earlier operated a business breeding Labradoodles, prompting aides within the White House to derisively call him “the dog breeder,” Reuters reported.
Azar defended Harrison in a statement as having “a proven record of successful execution and a deep appreciation for HHS’s complex work, as demonstrated by his strong leadership during an unprecedented public health emergency.”
Azar’s fortunes seemed to further sour late last week over the ouster of vaccine expert Rick Bright, who said he was transferred from his role as director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority for questioning the use of hydroxychloroquine as a coronavirus treatment.
Trump has repeatedly said he believes the drug could prove a miracle cure, and Bright said he plans to file a whistleblower complaint, contending that his transfer to another agency was politically motivated.
Politico reported that Bright’s public complaints caught the White House by surprise, and that Azar had told Vice President Mike Pence and other members of the administration’s coronavirus task force that Bright’s move would be considered a promotion.
The turmoil over Azar’s handling of the coronavirus response comes when the secretary, the second to head Trump’s HHS, was already on shaky footing. In December, Pence reportedly convened a meeting with Azar and Seema Verma, head of Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, in a bid to quash feuding between the two.
Azar, a former president of Eli Lilly & Co., has frequently clashed with domestic policy chief Joe Grogan and other advisers in the White House over a series of issues, including plans to import drugs from Canada, allowing research on fetal tissue from abortion, and a rule reducing rebates for drug makers.
But White House spokesman Judd Deere said Saturday that Azar’s agency “continues to lead on a number of the president’s priorities.” “Any speculation about personnel is irresponsible and a distraction from our whole-of-government response to COVID-19,” Deere said in a statement.
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