Vindictive behavior towards a subordinate who went off-message?
That doesn’t sound like the Trump White House I know.
Reading about this, I’m struggling with two conflicting impulses. On the one hand, it’s absolutely the sort of thing Trump or an overzealous toady eager to impress him might do to punish someone for crimes against MAGA. If the president says he has a “good feeling” about hydroxychloroquine and you work for him, you keep your mouth shut even if science says otherwise. On the other hand, it’s also absolutely the sort of thing a disgruntled official might falsely claim if he were demoted for good cause and wanted to retaliate by giving Trump a PR black eye. A choice footnote from the Times’s article: “Dr. Bright has hired the lawyers Debra Katz and Lisa Banks, who have a whistle-blower practice and are known in part for representing Christine Blasey Ford” during the Kavanaugh trial. Interesting that this guy went running to people with expertise in organizing an anti-Trump media circus based on dubious allegations.
Axios has the full statement from Rick Bright, until yesterday the head of the U.S. Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA). Key bit:
Unfortunately, this resulted in clashes with H.H.S. political leadership, including criticism for my proactive efforts to invest early into vaccines and supplies critical to saving American lives. I also resisted efforts to fund potentially dangerous drugs promoted by those with political connections.
Specifically, and contrary to misguided directives, I limited the broad use of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, promoted by the administration as a panacea, but which clearly lack scientific merit.
While I am prepared to look at all options and to think ‘outside the box’ for effective treatments, I rightly resisted efforts to provide an unproven drug on demand to the American public. I insisted that these drugs be provided only to hospitalized patients with confirmed COVID-19 while under the supervision of a physician.
These drugs have potentially serious risks associated with them, including increased mortality observed in some recent studies in patients with COVID-19.
He wants an investigation by the inspector general of HHS, with whom Trump already has a beef because the IG dared to report accurately that hundreds of hospitals didn’t have the personal protective equipment they needed earlier this month. To hear Bright tell it, this is cut and dried: Why else would the White House take the extraordinary step of demoting a vaccine expert in the middle of a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic if not for petty vindictive reasons, because he undercut the president’s latest hobbyhorse, hydroxychloroquine? It’s inexplicable.
Except maybe it isn’t. Politico sniffed around and found some longstanding grievances against Bright within the administration unrelated to hydroxychloroquine. Maybe the reason for the unusual timing of his demotion is that HHS knows how urgently important BARDA’s work is right now and wants to make it runs as smoothly as possible. Sounds like that wouldn’t have been easy with Bright in charge:
The move was more than a year in the making — Bright had clashed with department leaders about his decisions and the scope of his authority — but came abruptly, said five current and former HHS officials…
Inside HHS, Bright’s ouster is being positioned as a way to improve a crucial disease-fighting arm at a time of national crisis, amid some officials’ complaints that BARDA moved too slowly, focused on the wrong investments and took too long to award its contracts.
“BARDA was not as responsive during the crisis” as it could have been, said one former official. “Rather than prioritizing therapeutics that could be available in weeks, Bright focused on products that would take weeks or months.” For instance, BARDA didn’t make what’s known as a broad agency announcement to solicit potential investments in diagnostics, vaccines or treatments until March, five weeks after HHS Secretary Alex Azar declared a public health emergency over the Covid-19 outbreak.
Bright reportedly clashed with his boss at HHS over his “leadership style” but also over meatier issues like whether BARDA was too involved in procuring drugs instead of research and development. It’s possible that he’s the victim of coordinated character assassination by Trump officials in anticipation of him going public about hydroxychloroquine, but “five current and former HHS officials” would be a lot of coordination. And it’s not just people inside the administration who had a problem with him. “Outsiders” confirmed to Politico that there were problems with BARDA’s “pace and strategy” under Bright, such as duplicative investments in companies researching particular types of drugs to inhibit coronavirus.
Another official familiar with HHS’s recent acquisition of hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine claims that Bright “had supported those acquisitions in internal communications.” Bright doesn’t dispute that in his statement, though. He says he agreed that the drugs should be provided to patients in the hospital. His objection, it seems, was to the idea of use by the general public of a drug with no proven efficacy for treating COVID-19 and which was known for causing serious small effects in a small number of users. And the feds ended up adopting his position, didn’t they? I don’t believe the FDA has authorized HCQ for anything except compassionate use.
The fact that Bright’s eager to involve the IG makes me suspect there’s some merit to his claim, although whether his position on hydroxychloroquine was the catalyst in his demotion or just one of many reasons will remain to be seen. I mean, it’s not like the president is above wanting to fire a public health official for insisting on uttering a scientific truth that displeases him:
WSJ reports that in late February, Trump threatened to fire Nancy Messonnier, CDC's chief of respiratory diseases, after she told reporters the truth about the spread of the virus. https://t.co/pMkatgunPi pic.twitter.com/NlSI8Nn62m
— Will Saletan (@saletan) April 22, 2020
Messonier pissed him off in late February when she tanked the stock market by telling reporters that community spread of the virus was likely in the U.S. and that “Disruption to everyday life might be severe.” How’d that prediction work out?
There’s one more possibility for Bright’s demotion. Could it have been driven by HHS chief Alex Azar, in search of a way to re-ingratiate himself to the president? I ask only because there are two separate splashy stories out today absolutely annihilating him for his performance in January and February, as the government scrambled to try to head off a major outbreak. Sample quote: “Azar tapped a trusted aide with minimal public health experience to lead the agency’s day-to-day response to COVID-19. The aide, Brian Harrison, had joined the department after running a dog-breeding business for six years. Five sources say some officials in the White House derisively called him ‘the dog breeder.'” Maybe Azar thought kicking Bright over hydroxychloroquine would get him back in Trump’s good graces.