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The White House is analyzing a plan to get rid of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar as the country continues to fight back against the spread of the coronavirus, according to multiple reports. Azar’s ouster is being considered after weeks of growing tensions between the secretary and top administration officials amid broad criticism about the way the White House failed to act quickly to stem the coronavirus crisis. The Wall Street Journal and Politico were first to report on the talks to replace Azar. CNN also confirmed the discussions were taking place, citing a senior administration official.
Some in the White House are hesitant to push for the removal of the head of HHS as the pandemic continues to rage, saying that it would help Trump critics argue that the administration’s response to COVID-19 has been far from stellar. But the discussions over Azar’s future have increased amid growing criticism of his actions in the early days of the coronavirus response as well as more recent frustrations. Azar, meanwhile, has few allies in the West Wing who could come to his defense.
Tensions between Azar and Trump have been clear in recent weeks after the president appointed Vice President Mike Pence to head the coronavirus response. Following that move, multiple news reports have been published detailing how the White House dropped the ball on getting ready for the coronavirus outbreak. Several of those stories painted Azar in a positive light and described his frustrations at trying to get Trump to pay attention to the coronavirus outbreak in the first few weeks of the year. Many repeated the telling of one scene in particular in which Trump reportedly interrupted Azar’s efforts to talk to him about the coronavirus to ask about vaping. Those stories angered Trump, and senior White House officials blamed Azar for pushing the narrative with reporters, which he has long denied. In a sign of the turmoil brewing, Trump appointed his former campaign adviser Michael Caputo as the top spokesperson of HHS in what was seen as a move to gain more control over the department.*
Anger at Azar also grew this past week after the ouster of vaccine expert Rick Bright. Azar had tried to paint Bright’s transfer to the National Institutes of Health as a promotion. But Bright later issued a statement saying the move was a retaliation for his refusal to promote an unproven treatment for the coronavirus that Trump had claimed could be effective.
White House coronavirus coordinator Deborah Birx, Medicare chief Seema Verma, and Deputy HHS Secretary Eric Hargan are among the people being considered to replace Azar, according to Politico. The Wall Street Journal particularly focuses on Verma as a possible replacement, noting that she is close to Pence and has long had a tense relationship with Azar.
The White House pushed back against the reports that officials were considering replacing Azar. “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. HHS spokeswoman Caitlin Oakley said, “Secretary Azar is busy responding to a global, public health crisis and doesn’t have time for palace intrigue.”
Update, April 26, 2020, at 7 p.m.: Trump dismissed the reports on Sunday afternoon, calling them “Fake News.”
Correction, April 27, 2020: This post originally misspelled Michael Caputo’s first name.