News & Politics

White House Mulls Replacing Azar at Health and Human Services

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar speaks at a news conference, Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020, in Washington, about the federal government's response to a virus outbreak originating in China that has has sickened thousands of people and killed more than 100. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

The White House is thinking of replacing a major player in the administration’s response to the coronavirus as Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar’s head appears to be on the chopping block, according to several Washington sources.

Politico says that “four people familiar with the discussions” confirm that Azar’s days may be numbered at HHS. But Trump will think very carefully about replacing Azar, who has been under attack from all sides — including aides at the White House. It would not look good for the president to appear to be blaming Azar for any deficiencies in the coronavirus response by firing him. At least, that’s how the media will portray the change.

Senior officials’ long-standing frustrations with the health chief have mounted during the pressure-packed response to the Covid-19 outbreak, with White House aides angry this week about Azar’s handling of the ouster of vaccine expert Rick Bright. At a recent task force meeting, Azar assured Vice President Mike Pence that Bright’s move to the National Institutes of Health was a promotion — only for Bright and his lawyers to release a statement that he would soon file a whistleblower complaint against HHS leadership, blindsiding White House officials, according to three officials familiar with the meeting.

White House officials also have blamed Azar for long-running turmoil at the health department and a series of media reports that portrayed him as urging Trump to act on the Covid-19 outbreak in January, only for the president and his aides to disregard Azar’s warnings as alarmist. Azar has denied the reports, saying that Trump “never once rejected, turned down or dismissed a recommendation” of his or the task force’s.

“Blindsiding White House officials” is not a recipe for longevity in any administration. Azar may have indeed worn out his usefulness, but the PR fallout wouldn’t be Trump’s only problem: who else can do the job?

Among the names on the short list to replace Azar are White House coronavirus coordinator Deborah Birx, Medicare chief Seema Verma and deputy HHS Secretary Eric Hargan, said the four people familiar with the talks.

Verma has clashed with Azar on several occasions and is probably the most logical choice to run a trillion-dollar department. She’s solid with conservatives and Trump apparently likes her.

For Azar, the statement put out by the White House to scotch rumors of a change does not bode well for him.

“The Department of Health and Human Services, under the leadership of Secretary Azar, continues to lead on a number of the President’s priorities. Any speculation about personnel is irresponsible and a distraction from our whole-of-government response to COVID-19,” said deputy press Secretary Judd Deere in a statement Saturday.

Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

Azar has not been the most visible administration member during this crisis, and that’s probably how it should be. The public doesn’t need to hear from bureaucrats. They need facts from medical professionals. While testing snafus are not directly his fault, the CDC is part of his department and hence, his responsibility.

I’m sure Azar did the best he could in an impossibly difficult situation. But maybe some sort of change is necessary as we move from controlling the pandemic to rebuilding the economy.

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