What do you get when the Trump administration’s notorious staffing problems meet its insufficient focus on the opioid epidemic? A 24-year-old former Trump campaign staffer serving in the second most important position in the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), which coordinates the federal government’s multibillion-dollar anti-drug efforts and President Trump’s strategy to fight rampant opioid abuse.
The Washington Post reported on Sunday that Taylor Weyeneth, who graduated from St. John’s University in Queens in May 2016, was until recently second-in-command at ONDCP. Weyeneth’s only previous political experience was working on Trump’s presidential campaign; he held various positions and wound up working with Rich Dearborn, who was at one point director of the transition team. According to his LinkedIn, Weyeneth was hired as an assistant at the Treasury Department days after Trump’s inauguration, then moved to ONDCP in March, and became deputy chief of staff in July.
As the Post explains, Weyeneth was not given this position because he’s the Doogie Howser of federal drug policy, but because the Trump administration couldn’t keep ONDCP’s top positions filled:
Trump has pledged to marshal federal government talent and resources to address the opioid crisis, but nearly a year after his inauguration, the drug policy office, known as ONDCP, lacks a permanent director. At least seven of his administration’s appointees have departed, office spokesman William Eason said. Among them was the general counsel and acting chief of staff, some of whose duties were assumed by Weyeneth, according to a memo obtained by The Washington Post.
“ONDCP leadership recognizes that we have lost a few talented staff members and that the organization would benefit from an infusion of new expert staff,” said the Jan. 3 memo from acting director Richard Baum, a civil servant. “The functions of the Chief of Staff will be picked up by me and the Deputy Chief of Staff.”
An anonymous official did speak of Weyeneth’s “passion and commitment on the issue of opioids and drug addiction,” and both the official and Weyeneth’s mother said he was motivated by the death of a relative several years ago from a heroin overdose. But despite his apparent dedication, there were issues with Weyeneth’s role that went beyond his youth and inexperience. First up, his work at Nature’s Chemistry, a family company in Skaneateles, New York, that produced health products. Per the Post:
In the summer and fall of 2011, the firm was secretly processing illegal steroids from China as part of a conspiracy involving people from Virginia, California and elsewhere in the United States and one person in China, federal court records show. Weyeneth’s stepfather, Matthew Greacen, pleaded guilty to a felony conspiracy charge last year and received two years probation and a fine.
Weyeneth was not charged, and his mother said she and her son did not know about her now-estranged husband’s activities. (Weirdly, Alec Baldwin makes an appearance in the story; he is Greacen’s cousin and wrote a letter to the judge asking for leniency.)
The other issue is that the Post found inaccurate information in three versions of Weyeneth’s résumé. These range from discrepancies in how long he worked at his family’s company to references to a master’s degree in political science he received from Fordham University. The school said he is enrolled in their program but has yet to complete his degree.
After the Post began inquiring about Weyeneth’s roles, an administration official said he would be demoted to his initial position of White House liaison for ONDCP, which usually involves working with outside interest groups. It’s not clear how this latest vacancy at ONDCP will be remedied. Politico reported last week that despite declaring a 90-day public-health emergency in October, the Trump administration has done little to tackle the opioid epidemic:
Trump has not formally proposed any new resources or spending, typically the starting point for any emergency response. He promised to roll out a “really tough, really big, really great” advertising campaign to spread awareness about addiction, but that has yet to take shape. And key public health and drug posts in the administration remain vacant, so it’s not clear who has the authority to get new programs moving.
Even Trump’s messaging leaves much to be desired. Last week, while signing into law legislation that helps Customs and Border Patrol agents crack down on the trafficking of synthetic opioids (which was introduced in March), Trump remarked that he knows how to solve the crisis.
“There is an answer. I think I actually know the answer, but I’m not sure the country is ready for it yet,” he said, looking to lawmakers. “Does anybody know what I mean? I think so.”
Afterward, senators at the bill signing told CNN that they don’t know what Trump was referring to.
“I had no idea what answer that is,” said Sen. Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican. “I was intrigued, too, I’d like to know.”
“Yeah, I wondered about that,” said West Virginia Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito. “I didn’t follow up and ask.”