Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer called for HHS Secretary Alex Azar on Tuesday to resign immediately as Democrats investigate whether Trump administration appointees meddled with coronavirus reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“The secretary of Health and Human Services, Alex Azar, has not only failed to push back against these outrageous moves by President Trump, he has been almost entirely silent about the chaos and mismanagement in his own agency,” Schumer said on the Senate floor. “In Trump’s administration, the most important skill is the ability to stand up to the president and resist political influence.”
Democrats in the House launched an investigation Monday into a report from Politico that said Trump political appointees have demanded the right to review and change weekly scientific reports from the CDC on the coronavirus pandemic. HHS oversees the CDC and other health agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration.
“It has become abundantly clear that the leadership at the Department of Health and Human Services has allowed perhaps the most important federal agency right now to become subservient to the president’s daily whims,” said Schumer, D-N.Y. “So today, I’m calling on Secretary Azar to resign immediately. We need a secretary of Health and Human Services who will look out for the American people, not President Trump’s political interests.”
Caitlin Oakley, an HHS spokeswoman, called Schumer’s “uninformed” and “an attempt to mislead the American people and discredit the historic work of the Trump Administration to combat COVID-19.”
“Secretary Azar has always stood up for balanced, scientific, public health information and insisted that science and data drive the decisions at HHS and across our operating divisions,” Oakley said in a statement. “Secretary Azar has repeatedly briefed President Trump alongside the nation’s top doctors and insisted that President Trump have direct access to these doctors throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.”
“It’s stunning that the Democratic Leader of the Senate would call for the resignation of the secretary of HHS in the midst of a pandemic,” White House spokesman Judd Deere said. “Secretary Azar and HHS has been working hand-in-hand with the White House to carry out the President’s number one priority: the health and safety of the American people.”
According to Politico, HHS public affairs chief Michael Caputo had sought to meddle in the CDC’s Covid-19 work. In a Facebook Live broadcast Sunday, Caputo accused scientists of “sedition” and claimed the CDC was trying to undermine the president with a “resistance unit,” The New York Times reported. He also predicted President Donald Trump would win reelection and “when Donald Trump refuses to stand down at the inauguration, the shooting will begin,” according to the Times.
Caputo did not respond to CNBC’s request for comment. HHS told the Times that “Mr. Caputo is a critical, integral part of the president’s coronavirus response, leading on public messaging as Americans need public health information to defeat the Covid-19 pandemic.”
Schumer’s call comes after mounting concern from Democrats that data and vaccine approval could be influenced by the White House. In July, the Trump administration ordered hospitals to send coronavirus data directly to HHS, bypassing the CDC. That change raised questions of how the integrity of the data would be maintained.
Later on Tuesday, Politico published a new report claiming Azar overruled objections from FDA chief Stephen Hahn and prevented the agency from checking the quality of lab-developed tests created for their own use.
HHS did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment on the report, which was based on information from nearly a dozen current and former Trump administration officials and others familiar with the matter. In a statement to Politico, HHS chief of staff Brian Harrison said the move was driven by legal considerations about the FDA’s authority to regulate individual labs running their own tests.
Trump’s statement that a vaccine could be ready before Election Day raised flags for lawmakers and infectious disease experts who worried the process would be rushed for political gain. But Trump has denied that would be the case. White House coronavirus advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci said it’s unlikely the vaccine would be ready prior to the election.
This is not the first time Azar has come under fire this year over his handling of the pandemic, which has killed nearly 200,000 Americans. Tapped in January by Trump to lead the administration’s coronavirus response, Azar lasted in that role a little over a month before he was replaced by Vice President Mike Pence.
By April, as the true consequences of the U.S. failure to deploy an effective coronavirus test became clear, Azar again found himself in the crosshairs.
Late that month, reports emerged that Trump was planning to replace Azar at HHS. This decision was prompted in part by Azar’s mismanagement of vaccine expert Dr. Rick Bright, who later filed a damning whistleblower complaint alleging retaliation against him by HHS. At the time, the list of people shortlisted for Azar’s job included White House coronavirus coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx or Medicare chief Seema Verma. But Trump denied the reports of Azar’s imminent firing, calling them “fake news.”
-CNBC’s Christina Wilkie contributed to this report.
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