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Trump-administration officials are considering replacing Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar — or at least leaking that they are — according to The Wall Street Journal and Politico. The potential move, which President Trump dismissed as “fake news” on Sunday night, reportedly stems from frustrations with Azar’s management style both before and amid the coronavirus pandemic, particularly after he ousted vaccine expert Dr. Rick Bright last week, according to the Journal. Bright, who was serving as the director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, was transferred to the National Institutes of Health in a move his lawyers later said was an act of retaliation by Azar, who framed the transfer as a promotion.
Bright said the Trump administration has “politicized the work of BARDA and has pressured me and other conscientious scientists to fund companies with political connections as well as efforts that lack scientific merit.” The surprise (if not surprising) new scandal apparently upset Vice-President Mike Pence and his aides.
Officially, the White House and HHS have both denied Azar could be on the outs. “Secretary Azar is busy responding to a global public-health crisis and doesn’t have time for palace intrigue,” an HHS spokesperson claimed on Saturday. On Sunday night, Trump himself dismissed the story in a tweet, claiming the reported comments of administration officials an attempt by the “Lamestream Media” to “create the perception of chaos & havoc in the minds of the public.” Azar “is doing an excellent job!” Trump insisted.
Politico reports that some administration officials have been worried that replacing Azar “could fuel the perception of President Donald Trump’s response [to the coronavirus] as chaotic — and give ammunition to Trump’s critics, who have said that the Azar-led response to COVID-19 fell short during January and February.”
Azar was the first administration official to lead the White House coronavirus task force, but was soon replaced by Pence in late February, one day after Trump reportedly called Azar and threatened to fire him after a CDC official announced in a briefing that the U.S. was expecting the coronavirus to lead to a pandemic. When Azar called to brief Trump on the coronavirus in late January, the president reportedly berated him about the administration’s attempted ban on e-cigarettes — which Trump has obsessed over as a politically costly misstep.
Vaping was one of several issues that caused friction between Azar and the president and top administration officials. Trumpworld has also reportedly been annoyed with how news reports on the administration’s wide-scale mismanagement of the coronavirus crisis have portrayed Azar as more concerned about the threat of the pandemic than Trump was. Indeed, the suspicion that Azar is a leaker also appears to be working against him:
Azar has faced criticism over his ineffectual response as well. Last week, the Journal reported that “interviews with more than two dozen administration officials and others involved in the government’s coronavirus effort show that Mr. Azar waited for weeks to brief the president on the threat, oversold his agency’s progress in the early days and didn’t coordinate effectively across the health-care divisions under his purview.” Azar’s chief of staff, former Labradoodle breeder Brian Harrison, has become a target too.
And predating the coronavirus, another festering issue between the HHS secretary and the White House has been Azar’s ongoing feud with Seema Verma, the scandal-plagued administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services who is a Pence ally and someone Trump apparently trusts enough to call for advice. Verma has long been on the shortlist of people to replace Azar. Other officials under consideration for the job, according to Politico, are White House coronavirus coordinator Deborah Birx and HHS deputy secretary Eric Hargan.
If fired, Azar would be the first big head to roll on the White House coronavirus task force. Unfortunately, if the above reports are accurate, it does not seem as though helping screw up the U.S. response to the biggest public-health crisis in more than a hundred years is the real reason he’ll be ousted.
This post has been updated to include Trump’s tweet denying the reports.