Three embattled Cabinet secretaries – Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson and Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin – all appeared at a White House summit on the opioid epidemic, carrying on with business as usual.
The event Thursday, focused on the deadly opioid epidemic and the Trump administration’s attempts to combat the scourge, comes amid a swirl of negative stories about President Donald Trump’s Cabinet secretaries and his long-simmering ire for Sessions.
Trump briefly spoke at the summit but did not comment about the chaos surrounding his Cabinet secretaries.
Instead, he said his administration will be rolling out opioid policy “over the next three weeks” and told attendees that he and Sessions had talked about bring lawsuits against “some of these opioid companies.”
“I have also spoken to Jeff about bringing some lawsuits against some of these opioid companies,” Trump said. “I mean, what they are doing, the distribution. You have people that go to the hospital with a broken arm and they are addicted, they are addicted to painkillers and they don’t even know what happened.”
Sessions was in the room for Trump’s remarks, but the two did not appear to interact.
The President also lamented that the United States does not have stricter punishments for drug dealers.
“Some countries have a very, very tough penalty,” Trump said. “The ultimate penalty. And by the way, they have much less of a drug problem than we do. So we’re going to have to be very strong on penalties.”
The administration has pledged to make fighting the opioid epidemic a focus during Trump’s presidency, and Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s senior counselor, has taken the lead inside the White House in coordinating the response to the epidemic. The recently passed budget deal secured $6 billion in new funding to fight the crisis, but treatment advocate and drug policy experts are concerned that the uptick in funding won’t be enough to stem a drug overdose epidemic that killed 63,600 lives in 2016.
Carson and Shulkin – along with Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar – headlined a panel hosted by Conway. The issues swirling around the two did not come up during the session.
“It is affecting … the very fabric of our society,” Carson said. “Together, we can really take this important issue to where it needs to be.”
Sessions and Trump’s deteriorating relationship was on full display Wednesday after Trump tweeted that his attorney general’s decision to refer questions to the inspector general was “disgraceful.” In a remarkably rare step, though, Sessions responded to the President in a statement, stating that the process he initiated was “appropriate” and will “ensure complaints against this department will be fully and fairly acted upon if necessary.”
Sessions’ decision to respond further enraged Trump, according to a source familiar with his reaction who described his demeanor as indignant.
At the same time, senior White House aides were furious on Wednesday about a series of negative stories about frivolous spending at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Dismayed by the way HUD has handled the stories, White House aides have taken a more hands-on role in trying to stem the tide of negative news.
CNN reported on Tuesday that the former chief of administrative officer at HUD filed a complaint saying she was demoted after refusing to spend more than was legally allowed to redecorate Secretary Ben Carson’s new office at the request of his wife, Candy. The former staffer, Helen Foster, said she was told to “find money” beyond the $5,000 legal limit for redecorating and another report indicated that HUD also spent $31,000 last year to replace a dining room set in Carson’s office. Carson has now said he wants to cancel the order.
And a recently released Veterans Affairs inspector general report found “serious derelictions” by Shulkin and members of his staff during a July 2017 trip to Europe. The report included an allegation that the department paid more than $4,000 for Shulkin’s wife, Merle Bari, to travel to Europe with her husband.
The swirl of stories have caused yet another headache for a White House already dealing with conflict over key White House aides leaving the administration and internal skirmishes between chief of staff John Kelly and Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, over security clearances.
Despite senior White House aides pledging to combat the opioid epidemic, some treatment advocates have not been impressed with the Trump administration’s decisions, particularly on their decision to focus on the issue as a penal issue, not a medical one.
Others have also faulted the Trump administration for sidelining the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the administrative office tasked with coordinating the White House’s response to the epidemic, and not listening to Trump’s own opioid commission that he convened early in his administration.
Members of that commission were not invited to the Thursday summit, according to an aide to former Democratic Congressman Patrick Kennedy, who is a member. No explanation was given for not including them, the aide said.
Additionally, both the House and Senate are working in a large package of bills addressing the epidemic, but none of the lawmakers are on the list of summit attendees provided by the White House.
CNN’s Rene Marsh contributed to this report