By Anne Gearan, Lenny Bernstein, Scott Higham and Ed O’Keefe / The Washington Post
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump said Tuesday that his nominee to be the nation’s drug czar is withdrawing from consideration for the job.
Rep. Tom Marino, R-Pa., was under fire in the wake of revelations in a Washington Post/”60 Minutes” investigation that the lawmaker helped steer legislation in Congress making it harder for the Drug Enforcement Administration to act against giant drug companies.
“Rep.Tom Marino has informed me that he is withdrawing his name from consideration as drug czar. Tom is a fine man and a great Congressman!
– Donald J. Trump (realDonaldTrump) October 17, 2017”
Trump had declined to express support for Marino on Monday.
The president also said Monday that he will declare a national emergency next week to address the opioid epidemic.
Trump said “we’re going to be looking into” the investigation, while many Democrats and at least one Republican called for modification or outright repeal of the law. Democrats also urged Trump to drop Marino as his pick to lead the Office of National Drug Control Policy.
Speaking in the White House Rose Garden, Trump defended Marino as “a very early supporter of mine” and “a great guy.” He said that he had seen the reporting in question and that the White House would review the information.
Following reports Tuesday of Marin’s withdrawal, Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III, W.Va., whose state has been hard hit by the opioid epidemic, said he welcomed the news. Manchin was among the first to call for Marino’s nomination to be withdrawn.
“We need a drug czar who has seen these devastating effects and who is passionate about ending this opioid epidemic. I look forward to working with President Trump to find a drug czar that will serve West Virginians and our entire country,” he said in a statement Tuesday. “It’s because of the fine journalists at the Washington Post and 60 Minutes that we have avoided appointing someone who could have made the opioid epidemic even worse. I am eager to make this wrong right and work with my colleagues and the President to repeal this horrible law that should have never passed in the first place.”
In April 2016, a handful of members of Congress, allied with the nation’s major drug distributors, prevailed upon the DEA and the Justice Department to agree to the more industry-friendly legislation, undermining efforts to stanch the flow of pain pills, according to the Post/”60 Minutes” investigation. The DEA had opposed the effort for years.
The law was the crowning achievement of a multifaceted campaign by the drug industry to weaken aggressive DEA enforcement efforts against drug distribution companies that were supplying corrupt doctors and pharmacists who peddled narcotics to the black market. The industry worked behind the scenes with lobbyists and key members of Congress, pouring more than $1 million into their election campaigns.
The chief advocate of the law that hobbled the DEA was Marino, who spent years trying to move it through Congress. It passed after Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, negotiated a final version with the DEA.
Hatch defended his support of the legislation and Marino on Monday, saying in a statement that he “does not believe one flawed report should derail a nominee who has a long history of fighting illegal drug use and of helping individuals with chronic conditions obtain treatment.”
“Let’s not ignore the full story here in the rush toward easy politics,” Hatch added.
Top officials at the White House and the Justice Department have declined to discuss how the bill came to pass.
Michael Botticelli, who led the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy at the time, said neither Justice nor the DEA objected to the bill, removing a major obstacle to the president’s approval.
“We deferred to DEA, as is common practice,” he said.
The bill also was reviewed by the White House Office of Management and Budget.
“Neither the DEA nor the Justice Department informed OMB about the policy change in the bill,” a former senior OMB official with knowledge of the issue said recently. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of internal White House deliberations.
The DEA’s top official at the time, acting administrator Chuck Rosenberg, declined repeated requests for interviews. A senior DEA official said the agency fought the bill for years in the face of growing pressure from key members of Congress and industry lobbyists. But the DEA lost the battle and eventually was forced to accept a deal it did not want.
“They would have passed this with us or without us,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Our point was that this law was completely unnecessary.”
Loretta E. Lynch, who was attorney general at the time, declined a recent interview request.
Former President Barack Obama also declined to discuss the law. His spokeswoman, Katie Hill, referred reporters to Botticelli’s statement.
The DEA and Justice Department have denied or delayed more than a dozen requests filed by The Post and “60 Minutes” under the Freedom of Information Act for public records that might shed additional light on the matter. Some of those requests have been pending for nearly 18 months. The Post is now suing the Justice Department in federal court for some of those records.
Hatch’s spokesman, Matt Whitlock, said the DEA, which had undergone a leadership change, did not oppose the bill in the end.
“We worked collaboratively with DEA and DOJ … and they contributed significantly to the language of the bill,” Whitlock wrote in an email. “DEA had plenty of opportunities to stop the bill and they did not do so.”
Marino declined repeated requests for comment. Marino’s staff called the Capitol Police when The Post and “60 Minutes” tried to interview the congressman at his office on Sept. 12. In the past, the congressman has said the DEA was too aggressive and needed to work more collaboratively with drug companies.