President Trump’s war on opioids is looking more like a war on his drug policy office. White House counselor Kellyanne Conway has taken control of the opioids agenda, freezing out drug policy professionals and relying instead on political staff to address a crisis claiming about 175 lives a day, Politico reports. The main response so far has been to call for a border wall and to promise a “just say no” campaign. Trump is expected to propose massive cuts to the drug czar office, just as he attempted last year before backing off. He hasn’t named a permanent director, and the chief of staff was sacked in December. For months, the office’s top political appointee was a 24-year-old Trump campaign staffer with no relevant qualifications. Its senior leadership consists of a skeleton crew of three political appointees, down from nine a year ago.
“It’s fair to say the [drug czar’s office] has pretty much been systematically excluded from key decisions about opioids and the strategy moving forward,” said a former Trump administration staffer. The office’s acting director, Rich Baum, who has served in the office for decades, has not been invited to Conway’s opioid cabinet meetings. Two political appointees from Baum’s office, neither of whom are drug policy experts, attend on the office’s behalf, alongside officials from across the federal government, from HHS to Defense. Trump has endorsed anti-drug messaging and tougher law enforcement. He ignored many of the recommendations from former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s presidential commission about public health approaches to addiction, access to treatment, and education for doctors who prescribe opioids. In Ohio this week, it was first lady Melania Trump who attended an opioid event at a children’s hospital. The president toured a manufacturing plant and gave a speech on tax cuts.