Democrats called on the president to quickly discard Marino in the wake of a report that detailed how a targeted lobbying effort helped weaken the Drug Enforcement Administration’s ability to go after drug distributors, even as opioid-related deaths continue to rise.
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump said Monday that he will declare a national emergency next week to address the opioid epidemic, and declined to express confidence in Rep. Tom Marino, R-Pa., his nominee for drug czar, in the wake of revelations that the lawmaker helped steer legislation making it harder to act against giant drug companies.
Trump’s remarks came amid reaction across the political spectrum to a Washington Post/”60 Minutes” investigation into Marino helping guide legislation that sailed through Congress last year with virtually no opposition.
Trump said “we’re going to be looking into” the investigation, while many Democrats and at least one Republican called for either modification or outright repeal of the law. Democrats also called on Trump to drop Marino as his pick to lead the Office of National Drug Control Policy.
Speaking in the White House Rose Garden, Trump defended Marino as “a very early supporter of mine” and “a great guy.” He said he had seen the reporting in question and that the White House would be reviewing the information.
Trump said he will have a “major announcement, probably next week” about how his administration plans to tackle opioid addiction in the United States, a “massive problem” that he wants to get “absolutely right.”
“This country and, frankly, the world, has a drug problem,” he said. “We’re going to do something about it.”
Asked by a reporter whether he would be declaring the epidemic a national emergency, as he first promised in August but has not done, Trump said, “We’re going to be doing that next week.”
A presidential declaration could allow the administration to remove some bureaucratic barriers and waive some federal rules governing how states and localities respond to the drug epidemic. One such rule restricts where Medicaid recipients can receive addiction treatment.
The president also said he had not spoken with Marino about the Post/”60 Minutes” report, but if he determines that Marino’s work was detrimental to the administration’s goal of combating opioid addiction, “I will make a change.”
On Monday, Democrats called on Trump to quickly discard Marino in the wake of the report, which detailed how a targeted lobbying effort helped weaken the Drug Enforcement Administration’s ability to go after drug distributors, even as opioid-related deaths continue to rise.
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said nominating the Pennsylvania lawmaker for drug czar “is like putting the wolf in charge of the hens’ house.” He added, “The American people deserve someone totally committed to fighting the opioid crisis, not someone who’s labored on behalf of the drug industry.”
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., also said he was “horrified” to read details of the investigation, and called for Trump to drop Marino because “there’s no way that in having the title of the drug czar that you’ll be taken seriously or effectively by anyone in West Virginia and the communities that have been affected by this knowing that you were involved in something that had this type of effect.”
Marino was first floated as a potential drug czar last spring, but withdrew from consideration, citing a family illness. The White House formally nominated him to the post in September. The Senate Judiciary Committee has yet to set a date for his confirmation hearing because he has not sent back answers to a written questionnaire that all nominees must complete before a hearing, a spokesman said. Members of the committee didn’t immediately return requests for comment on the nomination, or declined to comment. Ultimately, Marino could be confirmed by the Senate with a simple majority vote.
Across Capitol Hill, congressional Democrats and at least one Republican, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, of Pennsylvania, announced plans to address the investigation’s findings.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said Monday that she would introduce legislation that would repeal the Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act of 2016. The law, she said, “has significantly affected the government’s ability to crack down on opioid distributors that are failing to meet their obligations and endangering our communities.”
McCaskill, as the top Democrat on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, has used her perch to probe opioid manufacturers, and is pushing them for sales and marketing materials, studies of potential addictions, and on whether the firms are donating to third-party advocacy groups that champion their work.
It was unclear Monday afternoon how much support McCaskill’s bill would receive and whether it would ever come up for a vote in the GOP-controlled House and Senate.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., also called for Trump to withdraw Marino’s nomination, saying in an interview, “The head of that office is supposed to be a watchdog, not a lapdog. He obviously is much more an industry representative than he is a whistleblower or watchdog.”
In April 2016, a handful of members of Congress, allied with the nation’s major drug distributors, prevailed upon the DEA and the Justice Department to agree to the more industry-friendly legislation, undermining efforts to stanch the flow of pain pills, according to the Post/”60 Minutes” investigation. The DEA had opposed the effort for years.
The law was the crowning achievement of a multifaceted campaign by the drug industry to weaken aggressive DEA enforcement efforts against drug distribution companies that were supplying corrupt doctors and pharmacists who peddled narcotics to the black market. The industry worked behind the scenes with lobbyists and key members of Congress, pouring more than $1 million into their election campaigns.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, of Rhode Island, was a sponsor of the bill. He could not be reached for comment on Monday night.
In a statement to WPRI on Monday, he said, “This bill was drafted in consultation with the DEA to offer better guidance for companies working to safely and responsibly supply prescription drugs to pharmacies, and to promote better communication and certainty between companies and regulators.”
“I had great confidence in the leadership and integrity of DEA Administrator Chuck Rosenberg,” he said, referring to the agency’s former chief. “Following passage of this legislation, the DEA still has the authority to immediately shut down a pill mill and take other actions to prevent drug diversion.”
The chief advocate of the law was Marino, who spent years trying to move it through Congress. It passed after Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, negotiated a final version with the DEA.
Hatch defended his support for the legislation and Marino on Monday, saying in a statement that he “does not believe one flawed report should derail a nominee who has a long history of fighting illegal drug use and of helping individuals with chronic conditions obtain treatment.”
“Let’s not ignore the full story here in the rush toward easy politics,” Hatch added.
Besides the sponsors and co-sponsors of the bill, few lawmakers knew the true impact the law would have. The White House was equally unaware of the bill’s import when then President Barack Obama signed it into law, according to interviews with former senior administration officials.