WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Monday raised the possibility of withdrawing his nomination of Republican Rep. Tom Marino to be the nation’s drug czar following reports that the lawmaker played a key role in passing a bill weakening federal authority to stop companies from distributing opioids.
Trump told reporters at a Rose Garden news conference that he will look at reports by The Washington Post and CBS News “very closely,” adding: “If I think it’s 1 per cent negative to doing what we want to do, I will make a change.”
The Post and CBS’ “60 Minutes” reported Sunday on the 2016 law, which weakened the Drug Enforcement Administration’s authority to stop companies from distributing opioids. Marino, in his fourth term representing northeastern Pennsylvania, played a key role in the law along with a handful of other Republicans.
Trump called Marino “a good man,” but said, somewhat ominously, “We’re going to be looking into Tom.”
Democrats called on Trump to withdraw Marino’s nomination.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said confirming Marino as the nation’s drug czar was like “putting the wolf in charge of the henhouse,” adding: “The American people deserve someone totally committed to fighting the opioid crisis, not someone who has laboured on behalf of the drug industry.”
Sen. Joe Manchin, whose home state of West Virginia has been among the hardest-hit by the opioid epidemic, said he was horrified at the accounts of the 2016 law and Marino’s role in it.
Manchin scolded the Obama administration for failing to “sound the alarm on how harmful that bill would be for our efforts to effectively fight the opioid epidemic” that kills an estimated 142 people a day nationwide.
In a letter to Trump, Manchin called the opioid crisis “the biggest public health crisis since HIV/AIDS,” and said, “we need someone leading the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy who believes we must protect our people, not the pharmaceutical industry.”
The Post reported Sunday that Marino and other members of Congress, along with the nation’s major drug distributors, prevailed upon the DEA and the Justice Department to agree to an industry-friendly law that undermined efforts to restrict the flow of pain pills that have led to tens of thousands of deaths. President Barack Obama signed the law in April 2016.
The industry worked behind the scenes with lobbyists and key members of Congress, including Marino, pouring more than a million dollars into their election campaigns, the newspaper reported.
Marino’s office declined to comment. But Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, the bill’s lead Senate sponsor, defended the measure Monday, calling allegations that he or Marino “conspired” with drug companies “utterly ridiculous.” Hatch, a 40-year veteran of the Senate, said he was “no patsy” of the drug industry.
The language affecting DEA enforcement authority was suggested by DEA and the Justice Department, Hatch said, adding that the agencies could have tried to stop the bill at any time ‚Äî or recommended that Obama veto the measure.
“Let’s not pretend that DEA, both houses of Congress and the Obama White House all somehow wilted under Representative Marino’s nefarious influences,” Hatch said.
A White House commission convened by Trump and led by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has called on Trump to declare a national emergency to help deal with the growing opioid crisis. An initial report from the commission in July noted that the approximately 142 deaths each day from drug overdoses mean the death toll is “equal to September 11th every three weeks.”
Trump has said he will officially declare the opioid crisis a “national emergency” but so far has not done so. He said Monday he will make the designation next week.
Meanwhile, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said Monday she will introduce legislation to repeal the 2016 law.
The bill was touted as a way to improve enforcement efforts related to prescription drug abuse by altering DEA procedures for revoking or suspending registrations for opioid distributors, McCaskill said, but “the effect of the changes has been to significantly curtail the ability of DEA to bring enforcement actions against drug distributors.”
McCaskill, the senior Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, has been investigating the role of pharmaceutical distributors in fueling the opioid crisis.