Trump Could Clean House at Health Agencies

Alicia Ault

November 10, 2020

As President Donald J. Trump starts firing officials of his administration ― even if it appears that they would only have a few months left in the job ― some health officials may find their positions on the line.

Others may soon depart voluntarily. Politico reported in late October that more than two dozen political appointees had already left the US Department Health and Human Services (HHS) since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in February and that potentially dozens of the more than 100 in the department would leave if Trump was not reelected.

Trump hasn't conceded, he is challenging the election results, and he has already fired his Defense Secretary, Mark Esper.

Among those possibly in Trump's sights: HHS Secretary Alex Azar, US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Stephen Hahn, MD, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Robert Redfield, MD, and White House Coronavirus Task Force member Anthony Fauci, MD, who is also the director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Seema Verma, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), is likely safe. According to Politico, Verma is expected to leave on her own terms.

HHS Secretary Alex Azar. Alex Brandon/AP

Azar has had a long run as a Trump appointee. He took office in January 2018 and has been a staunch loyalist. But he's frequently been the butt of grousing by Trump for not doing enough to help lower drug prices and for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Azar was initially in charge of the Trump virus effort but was quickly replaced by Vice President Mike Pence.

It was widely reported in late April that Trump was considering firing Azar, but the president called that "fake news" in a tweet.

FDA Commissioner Dr Stephen Hahn. Alex Edelman/AP

Azar has complained about Hahn, who was confirmed in December 2019. According to Politico, Azar was looking into how to remove Hahn as commissioner because of the FDA's battle with the White House over standards for emergency use authorization of a coronavirus vaccine.

In addition, Trump was infuriated by the agency's insistence that it stick to the highest bar for an emergency approval. "The deep state, or whoever, over at the FDA is making it very difficult for drug companies to get people in order to test the vaccines and therapeutics. Obviously, they are hoping to delay the answer until after November 3rd," Trump tweeted at Hahn.

Fauci on the Firing Line?

Most of the president's ire has been directed at Fauci. As far back as April, Trump retweeted a call for Fauci's firing. Twitter removed the original tweet but kept Trump's comments on the original tweet.

Dr Anthony Fauci. Kevin Dietsch/AP

The president has frequently questioned Fauci's advice, sidelined him from task force meetings, and infrequently met with him. Trump called Fauci a "disaster" during a call with supporters in October, and then, at a campaign rally in November, intimated that he would fire the scientist after the election, according to The Washington Post.

But such a firing cannot be easily done. Some have speculated that Trump could pressure Fauci's boss, Francis Collins, MD, PhD — the director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), who is a political appointee — to get rid of him. But Collins would have to come up with a reason to fire Fauci. Because he is not a political appointee, Fauci is afforded a raft of protections given to civil service employees of the federal government.

To demote or fire Fauci, Collins would have to give him 30 days' notice unless there's a belief that he committed a crime. Fauci would have at least a week to offer evidence and affidavits in support of his service.

He'd also be entitled to legal representation, a written decision, and the specific reasons for the action being taken quickly. He could also request a hearing, and he'd be able to appeal any action to the Merit Systems Protection Board. The process could take months, if not years.

In late October, Trump issued an executive order that would reclassify certain federal employees so that they wouldn't have such protections. But agencies have until mid-January to come up with lists of such workers, according to Government Executive.

Collins has been with NIH since 1993, when he headed the Human Genome Project and the National Human Genome Research Institute. Politico has speculated that Collins, 70, might retire if Trump was reelected. It's unclear what he'll do now.

CDC Director Dr Robert Redfield. Alex Edelman/AP

Redfield, who has taken heat for his leadership from many in public health — and was asked in October to stand up to Trump by former CDC Director William H. Foege, MD — has been openly contradicted by the president on more than one occasion, according to The New York Times.

In September, The Hill reported that Trump told reporters that he'd chastised Redfield by phone soon after Redfield had told a Senate committee that a coronavirus vaccine would not be available until mid-2021.

Alicia Ault is a Lutherville, Maryland–based freelance journalist whose work has appeared in publications including, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. You can find her on Twitter @aliciaault.

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