President Trump said “we’re going to be looking into” a report about Rep. Tom Marino (R-Pa.), his drug czar nominee, in the wake of the Washington Post/“60 Minutes” investigation that found the lawmaker helped steer legislation that made it harder for the government to take some enforcement actions against giant drug companies.
The president’s comments came as congressional Democrats reacted sharply to the report that Marino helped guide the legislation that sailed through Congress last year with virtually no opposition. Some called for Trump to drop Marino as his pick to lead the Office of National Drug Control Policy, while others unveiled legislation to undo the law Marino backed.
Speaking in the White House Rose Garden, Trump defended Marino as “a very early supporter of mine” and “a great guy.” He said that he had seen the reporting in question and that the White House would be reviewing the information.
Trump also said that 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, Trump said, “We’re going to be doing that next week.”
But Trump first said he was going to declare a national opioid emergency in August and has not yet done so.
Trump said he had not yet spoken with Marino about the Post/“60 Minutes” report, but said that if he determines that Marino’s work was detrimental to the administration’s goal of combating opioid addiction, “I will make a change.”
Earlier Monday, Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) said he was “horrified” to read details of an investigation by The Washington Post and “60 Minutes” 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.
Manchin added in an interview that he’s not attacking Marino’s motives or character, but that Trump should withdraw his nomination, 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. But the White House formally nominated him for the post in September. The Senate Judiciary Committee has yet to set a date for his confirmation hearing because Marino has not sent back answers to a written questionnaire that all nominees must complete before a hearing, a spokesman said. Members of the committee also 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.
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) also 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 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 be taken up for a vote in the GOP-controlled House and Senate.
In the House, Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) unveiled a similar measure that would rescind the thresholds put in place by Marino’s bill and give the DEA more authority to suspend a distributor’s license.
“Now is not the time to tie DEA’s hands,” Connolly said in a statement. “We need to hold everyone along the supply chain accountable, from the pharmaceutical distributors, to the pharmacies, to the prescribers.”
As of Monday afternoon, no Republican lawmaker had announced their opposition to Marino’s legislation or plans to either sponsor McCaskill or Connolly’s bill or introduce something similar.
One of Marino’s home state senators, Sen. Robert P. Casey (D-Pa.), is withholding judgment on Marino’s nomination but a spokesman for the senator said that he believes the congressman “should be asked to address this matter.” Casey also believes that the legislation Marino backed “should be repealed immediately and DEA’s authority to hold drug distributors to tough standards should be restored,” said spokesman John Rizzo.
Manchin, McCaskill and Casey face reelection next year in rural states that Trump won last year. Despite their concerns, they did not oppose the legislation when it passed in the Senate last year by unanimous consent. McCaskill was away from Congress for three months last year being treated for breast cancer when the bill was approved.
Manchin said in the interview that his aides responsible for tracking drug policy had raised concerns about Marino’s legislation as it worked its way through Congress last year.
“They had questions and they had concerns from the beginning but they were laid to rest by the DEA. We’re going to find out how that could happen and why,” Manchin said.
As an alternative to Marino, Manchin suggested that Trump consider nominating Joseph T. Rannazzisi to serve as drug czar. Rannazzisi ran the DEA’s division responsible for regulating the drug industry and led a decade-long campaign of aggressive enforcement until he was forced out of the agency in 2015.
If Trump prefers to nominate a partisan figure, “we can find a Republican who has a passion because of the devastation to their own family. That won’t be hard to find in America, I can assure you that,” Manchin said.
Fallout from the investigation also has spread to electoral politics. Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), who is running for Senate in a state that has been hit hard by the opioid crisis, is also fielding attacks for being a lead sponsor of Marino’s bill.
James Mackler, the Senate race’s Democratic front-runner, criticized Blackburn over her involvement, saying in a statement late Sunday, “I’m running for U.S. Senate because Tennesseans need a senator that will stand up for them rather than catering to special interests and corporate lobbyists.”
“That Congresswoman Blackburn would champion legislation like this while Tennesseans face an opioid epidemic is all one needs to know about her priorities,” he said.
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.
The chief advocate of the law that hobbled the DEA was Marino, who spent years trying to move it through Congress. It passed after Sen. Orrin G. 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 President Barack Obama signed it into law, according to interviews with former senior administration officials.
The DEA and the Justice Department have denied or delayed more than a dozen requests filed by The Post and “60 Minutes” under the Freedom of Information Act for public records that might shed additional light on the matter. Some of those requests have been pending for nearly 18 months. The Post is now suing the Justice Department in federal court for some of those records.