Empty Desks, Squabbles, Inexperienced Staff: Exactly Who Is Coordinating White House Drug Policy?
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Photo: photo: Dom Smith/STAT

Empty Desks, Squabbles, Inexperienced Staff: Exactly Who Is Coordinating White House Drug Policy?


WASHINGTON — June 19, 2018

For at least six months, staffers in the Office of National Drug Control Policy — often political appointees in their 20s — have crossed 17th Street, entered the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, and sat through weekly meetings of an “opioids cabinet” chaired by Kellyanne Conway.

Then they have returned to their desks and reported back to veteran career staff — who have listened, often with disappointment, to the ideas proposed by Conway and Katy Talento, a domestic policy adviser.

The pair insisted at one point that an opioid awareness campaign focus on fentanyl, a concept opposed by those with experience in substance use prevention. Separately, Conway outlined a plan for a marketing partnership with the NFL and MLB, an idea that has not yet materialized.

Frustrations with the meetings, according to officials familiar with them, are symptomatic of a broader issue: A year and a half into the Trump administration, it remains unclear who, besides Conway, is coordinating U.S. drug policy in the midst of an opioid crisis.

In theory, it’s the role of the ONDCP to coordinate the effort across the federal government.

Jim Carroll, a former deputy White House chief of staff, has been serving as acting drug czar since Trump announced his intent to nominate him to lead ONDCP in February. But Carroll has little in the way of experience in drug policy or public health, other than time as a Virginia prosecutor handling drug-related cases.

Even before Carroll’s arrival, the ONDCP’s role has been significantly diminished, according to interviews with nine current and former ONDCP staffers, as well as outside drug policy experts, lawmakers, and Capitol Hill staff.

“I don’t understand why Trump and Kelly haven’t gotten some major figure — medical, political, you name it — to run the operation, and then funded it,” said Barry McCaffrey, formerly a four-star Army general who served as drug czar during the Clinton administration, referring to John Kelly, the president’s chief of staff.

Others inside and outside the administration have expressed concern that the agency is being used as a pasture for former Trump campaign workers and administration officials who have left previous jobs. The White House strongly contested that assertion, pointing to recent personnel moves as a sign the administration was sending valued talent to the drug policy office.

Still, at one point last year, three of ONDCP’s roughly nine political positions — which range from entry level to leadership — were filled by 20-somethings, including Taylor Weyeneth, who became the agency’s deputy chief of staff at 24.

After former health secretary Tom Price’s ouster following a scandal over his use of a private jet, two of his key aides wound up with high-level ONDCP jobs: Charmaine Yoest, once the health department’s head of communications, and Kristin Skrzycki, Price’s former chief of staff.

The agency has already cycled through a press secretary (who worked at ONDCP for roughly 10 days before departing), a communications director, and an acting chief of staff; a number of career staff have left.

“ONDCP needs to be re-elevated to serve as the nerve center for the administration’s drug policy,” said Rafael Lemaitre, who worked in public affairs for ONDCP under Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. “It should not be a dumping ground for campaign workers who need a job in the Trump administration.”

Hogan Gidley, a deputy White House press secretary, said Trump “selects the highest caliber of individuals from an array of backgrounds and experiences” to fill positions in the administration. He said Conway remains the point person on opioids-related initiatives.

“Kellyanne Conway has done an outstanding job on this issue and continues to convene ‘opioids cabinet’ meetings twice a week with the various federal agencies involved with working to combat the opioid crisis,” Gidley said. “Agency representatives attend these meetings, and report back to their principal.”

Beyond Conway, a sea of other faces have played prominent roles in the administration’s response to the opioid crisis. Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor, chaired a White House commission on the epidemic. FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb has been vocal on opioids issues from treatment to interdiction of international drug shipments. Health secretary Alex Azar — who has made opioids a focus of his agency’s work — tapped his deputy, Brett Giroir, to coordinate the agency’s drug policy efforts and lead a separate interagency task force on pain management.

Giroir’s appointment, according to some current and former administration officials, has largely sidelined the HHS secretary for mental health and substance use, Elinore McCance-Katz, further injecting confusion into who in the administration is tasked with coordinating drug policy. The Department of Health and Human Services did not respond to a request for comment.

It is not the first time the ONDCP has been overshadowed. In 2017, the administration considered cutting its budget by 95 percent, according to a leaked budget document. The White House formally included the same cut in its 2018 budget request, a proposal ignored by Congress.

Even with stable funding, however, the administration has stumbled in its attempts to find a leader for the office.

Trump had considered Frank Guinta, a former New Hampshire congressman, to lead the agency, and Guinta had at one point told associates the White House was likely to announce his nomination within weeks.

Author: STAT