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White House in Talks to Replace HHS Secretary Alex Azar

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 4/26/2020 Stephanie Armour, Rebecca Ballhaus
Alex Azar wearing a suit and tie © Gripas Yuri/Zuma Press

Administration officials are discussing replacing Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar following criticism of his management of the early response to the coronavirus pandemic, according to six people familiar with the discussions.

It remains unclear if Mr. Azar will be ousted and in what timeline that might occur. Administration officials said the White House is hesitant to shake up the leadership of HHS during a pandemic, though they acknowledged that frustration with the secretary has been growing in recent weeks.

President Trump is prone to unexpected staffing moves and dismissals, so the decision could still go either way. But people familiar with the discussions say they have accelerated in recent days with a far more serious tone, amid mounting criticism about Mr. Azar’s leadership, including a report in The Wall Street Journal detailing his early missteps in the coronavirus response.

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The president has publicly indicated his own frustrations with Mr. Azar, tweeting earlier this month in response to reports that Mr. Trump didn’t act early enough to respond to coronavirus that Mr. Azar “told me nothing until later.”

The White House denied that there was any imminent plan to replace Mr. 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,” said spokesman Judd Deere. “Any speculation about personnel is irresponsible and a distraction from our whole-of-government response to COVID-19.”

“Secretary Azar is busy responding to a global, public health crisis and doesn’t have time for palace intrigue,” an HHS spokeswoman said Saturday.

Seema Verma, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services administrator, has been frequently discussed as a possible replacement for Mr. Azar, people familiar with the discussions said. Ms. Verma, an ally of Vice President Mike Pence, has had a long-running feud with Mr. Azar that intensified last year when both were summoned to the White House to broker an uneasy truce. Mr. Trump has developed a good relationship with Ms. Verma and often seeks out her counsel, people familiar with the matter said.

In recent weeks, there have been multiple signs that the White House was seeking to exert greater control over HHS. Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, has asked John Fleming, a senior adviser to Mr. Meadows, to serve as a liaison between the White House, HHS and the Food and Drug Administration to allow for “constant communication” on vaccine development, an administration official said.

The president earlier this month installed a former campaign aide, Michael Caputo, to serve as assistant secretary for public affairs at HHS. The White House also appointed policy adviser Emily Newman as a liaison to HHS who will oversee the agency’s political hires.

Since Mr. Azar began serving as HHS secretary in January 2018, he and the president have clashed repeatedly, officials said. Mr. Trump has been critical of the secretary’s handling of drug pricing and of a ban on e-cigarettes, and berated him on the latter issue when Mr. Azar called in late January to brief the president on the potential severity of the coronavirus threat, the Journal has previously reported.

In late February, after a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention official said in a briefing that the administration was preparing for a potential pandemic, a furious Mr. Trump called Mr. Azar on his flight from India to Washington and threatened to oust the official, the Journal has reported. The next day, the president replaced Mr. Azar as head of a White House coronavirus task force with Mr. Pence.

Administration officials, including those on Mr. Pence’s team, were upset over circumstances surrounding the ouster this week of Rick Bright, who had been serving as director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, or Barda. Mr. Azar had framed Dr. Bright’s transfer from Barda director to a National Institutes of Health position as effectively a promotion, and the vice president and other officials were taken aback when they later read a statement from Dr. Bright alleging that his ouster amounted to retaliation.

Dr. Bright said through his lawyers he would ask the HHS inspector general to “investigate the manner in which this Administration has politicized the work of BARDA and has pressured me and other conscientious scientists to fund companies with political connections as well as efforts that lack scientific merit.”

Mr. Azar, 52 years old, served as HHS general counsel and later deputy secretary under President George W. Bush, then worked as the top lobbyist for Eli Lilly & Co., an Indianapolis-based pharmaceutical company. Mr. Trump nominated him as HHS secretary after Tom Price resigned from the post under pressure over hundreds of thousands of dollars he had spent on chartered flights.

Write to Stephanie Armour at stephanie.armour@wsj.com and Rebecca Ballhaus at Rebecca.Ballhaus@wsj.com

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