WASHINGTON — Two of President Trump’s top health officials were stewing last month in a drab room at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta as Mr. Trump and his health secretary, Alex M. Azar II, were concluding a laboratory tour, one that they had been left off of.
One of the officials, Dr. Jerome M. Adams, the surgeon general, was then invited to join the president and the secretary to shake hands. The other, Seema Verma, who leads the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, was not. Instead, a staff member told the powerful Medicare chief to head to the receiving line with the rank and file. Furious, she left for the airport to catch a commercial flight home to Washington.
The episode from March 6, described by senior administration officials who believed Mr. Azar was behind the snub, illustrated to them why Mr. Azar’s future as secretary of health and human services is a constant question, even as his sprawling department battles the worst public health crisis in a century. Where Mr. Azar goes, personal conflicts seem to follow, senior administration officials say. Officials at the Department of Health and Human Services disputed that notion.
The department’s newly installed spokesman, Michael R. Caputo, dismissed such talk as beside the point.
“I can tell you that the American people want information they can use to fight the coronavirus, not palace intrigue,” he said.
But even before the coronavirus pandemic, senior White House officials had grown deeply frustrated with Mr. Azar and his management of the department.
Now, Mr. Azar finds himself increasingly sidelined by Mr. Trump and his advisers, who blame the secretary for early failures on testing and for what they describe as inconsistent stewardship of the coronavirus task force in its first month.
But Vice President Mike Pence took over for Mr. Azar as the leader of the task force at the end of February, and in the weeks since the episode at C.D.C. headquarters, Mr. Azar has been excluded from key coronavirus meetings, administration officials say, including one led by Mr. Grogan and another involving only the nation’s top medical officials.
“These are all arguably people who theoretically report to him, work for him, but like everything else, that has been upended in this administration, where it isn’t very clear if cabinet secretaries are choosing or even co-choosing their top political appointees,” said Kathleen Sebelius, a health and human services secretary under President Barack Obama. “I don’t have any idea how you operate in that environment when you’re excluded from meetings with your agency.”
Aides to Mr. Azar say he remains fully in charge of his department and is an integral part of the administration’s response to the virus. White House officials continue to dismiss questions about his status.
“Even with the president’s tweet on Sunday flatly denying rumors that Secretary Azar is on his way out or that he is doing anything other than an excellent job, the media is still focused on outrageous claims of palace intrigue that are only meant to distract the American people from the Trump administration’s bold leadership in response to this pandemic,” said Judd Deere, a White House spokesman.
But the monthslong coronavirus crisis has exacerbated deep and longstanding divisions between Mr. Azar, a former pharmaceutical executive, and political officials in other parts of the administration, including some of those closest to Mr. Trump in the White House.
In the last several weeks, the president grew angry with Mr. Azar after articles in The Washington Post and The New York Times depicted the White House as slow to respond to the coronavirus outbreak, according to several officials familiar with his thinking. They said Mr. Trump was enraged that he was being criticized in accounts that portrayed Mr. Azar as having been aggressive in responding to the threat early on.
Mr. Azar’s allies say he was one of the few people who tried to alert the West Wing to a looming public health crisis in January and early February. They note that some officials accused Mr. Azar of being “an alarmist” for his repeated warnings about the coronavirus at a time when Mr. Trump was publicly playing down the threat.
But others have said Mr. Azar was not clear enough with Mr. Trump about the magnitude of the threat. Several aides to the president said that Mr. Azar was so focused on keeping his job and preserving his standing in the White House that he gave conflicting information — dire one day, optimistic the next — that ended up confusing Mr. Trump and his senior advisers.
The episode at the C.D.C. headquarters has also reverberated with White House and health officials, some of whom saw it as an example of Mr. Azar’s pettiness. Ms. Verma had made a special effort to get to Atlanta after traveling the day before with Mr. Pence, catching up to the president after his tour had been canceled, then abruptly put back on his schedule.
But she was left off the president’s tour, which unfolded on national television. Mr. Azar stood with Mr. Trump, who wore a red “Keep America Great” hat produced by his re-election campaign, and Dr. Robert R. Redfield, the director of the C.D.C., for almost an hour as the president extolled his administration’s work. Ms. Verma and Dr. Adams were nowhere to be seen. To then be told to join a receiving line with other guests waiting to shake Mr. Azar’s hand infuriated Ms. Verma.
One senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the events, insisted that Mr. Azar had no knowledge of the staging of the C.D.C. event, and that it was dictated by White House advance officials.
Mr. Azar remains a member of the primary coronavirus task force and continues to be an active participant in the group’s meetings, though for weeks he has not appeared regularly alongside the president or vice president during the daily news conferences held afterward. In recent weeks, Mr. Azar has also made fewer appearances in the national news media, which are coordinated through Mr. Pence’s office.
He has also been missing from the “operational check-ins” held before the task force’s meetings where officials organize and prepare. The gatherings in the Roosevelt Room are led by Mr. Grogan and include the heads of the key health agencies within the Department of Health and Human Services, including the C.D.C., the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the Food and Drug Administration.
Mr. Grogan has told associates that he purposefully excluded Mr. Azar, according to one senior administration official.
Mr. Azar is not a part of the regular meetings of a group of the administration’s senior health officials with medical degrees, including Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the federal government’s top infectious disease expert, and Dr. Deborah L. Birx, the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator.
“If you don’t have the health secretary as the lead, it’s very unclear who is the lead,” Ms. Sebelius said.
The recent tensions have prompted White House officials, including Mark Meadows, the new chief of staff, to discuss possible replacements for Mr. Azar once the coronavirus crisis stabilizes, according to senior administration officials. Among the names discussed have been Ms. Verma, Dr. Birx and Dr. John C. Fleming, a former House Republican and official at the Department of Health and Human Services who is now an aide to Mr. Meadows.
But some of Mr. Trump’s aides cautioned that advisers had gotten ahead of themselves by putting out word that Mr. Azar could be replaced in the coming weeks. Senior administration officials say the president will most likely wait until the summer to make a change, once the immediate crisis has diminished, if he makes one at all before the election.
Mr. Azar has told several administration officials that he wants to leave his post on his own terms.
But if Mr. Azar is removed, it will not just be the result of concerns about the administration’s response to the coronavirus. Mr. Grogan fought regularly with Mr. Azar over efforts to lower prescription drug prices, an issue Mr. Trump sees as central to his health agenda.
Mr. Trump also blamed Mr. Azar for aggressively pushing for a partial ban on flavored e-cigarettes, a decision the president made in January and then quickly regretted, advisers said. He berated Mr. Azar about it in a call on Jan. 16 in front of his political advisers.
Mr. Azar’s well-documented battles with Ms. Verma now extend to which of them is seen as controlling the distribution of congressionally approved money to health care providers. While Mr. Azar attended the funeral for his father this month, officials in Mr. Pence’s office signed off on Ms. Verma making the announcement, a White House official said. The official said that Mr. Pence was acting out of a desire to get the money out the door, not to slight Mr. Azar.
Cabinet slashes budgets to pay for 6 new ministries, including ‘alternate PM’ – The Times of Israel
The cabinet on Sunday approved widespread fiscal reforms that will cut the budgets of most ministries in order to fund the establishment of six new ministries, including the office of the “alternate prime minister,” in a series of controversial decisions.
A unity coalition deal between Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White’s Benny Gantz ended over a year of political deadlock when the most minister-rich government in Israel’s history was sworn in earlier this month. New ministerial positions were created to accommodate the cabinet’s 33 ministers, who number over a quarter of the Knesset’s 120 lawmakers.
The price tag for the overhead costs of the new government has been estimated as high as a billion shekels ($285 million) over its three-year span. There have been widespread accusations that the government is overlarge and costly at a time when the economy is being ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Among the new offices created Sunday was the Alternate Prime Minister’s Office, which will be held by Defense Minister Gantz for 18 months and then be transferred to Netanyahu as part of a power-sharing deal designed to allow him to keep the prime ministerial title even after vacating the post. Unlike other ministers, a prime minister can remain in his post even after he is indicted on criminal charges.
Other offices are Ze’ev Elkin’s Water Resources and Higher Education ministries; Orly Levy-Abekasis’s Ministry of Community Empowerment; David Amsalem’s Cyber Ministry; and Tzipi Hotovely and Tzachi Hanegbi’s Settlements Ministry.
Gantz — who is currently defense minister, in addition to the new post of alternate premier — is set to take over as prime minister in 18 months under the coalition deal, at which point Netanyahu will become alternate prime minister.
As the Alternate Prime Minister’s Office was approved, Netanyahu on Sunday denied reports that the alternate prime minister would also be granted an alternate prime minister’s residence. “It’s not true. It didn’t come up and it won’t,” he said.
In order to create the new posts, ministers approved a government decision that will see a 1.5% cut to the budgets of all government offices, specifically at the upper personnel level. The move will slash 300 posts from the various offices to free up some NIS 100 million ($28.5 million).
Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi opposed the budget cuts to foreign service, whereupon the cuts to his ministry were reduced from NIS 11.5 million ($3.2 million) to NIS 4.8 million ($1.3 million), the Walla news site reported.
On the 22-item agenda, the cabinet was also voting on filling the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, led by Blue and White’s Avi Nissenkorn, and other ministerial panels; appointing directors general of the defense and economy ministries; and giving the green light to new Finance Minister Israel Katz’s program to encourage employment amid the pandemic.
In a Saturday night address, Katz presented his new Finance Ministry plan aimed at encouraging employers to take back employees placed on unpaid leave during the height of the pandemic in March. For every employee called back, places of business will receive a grant of NIS 7,500 ($2,141) starting on June 1, according to the plan. An additional grant of some NIS 3,500 ($1,000) will be handed out to employers for employees called back in May. Katz said some NIS 500 million ($142 million) have been allocated for businesses that would put employees back to work.
Economy Minister Amir Peretz opposed the treasury proposal during the meeting, arguing that it rewards employers who dropped their workers while harming those who kept their employees on the payroll even at a loss, according to the Globes business daily.
Katz retorted: “There is an alternate prime minister. There is no alternate finance minister. I am the finance minister and I will lead the implementation of the government decisions, which I proposed, and which were accepted by an overwhelming majority,” the Ynet news site reported.
Sunday’s cabinet meeting also saw Housing Minister Yaakov Litzman and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri receive building and planning powers that were previously under the treasury’s purview, while the Health Ministry was granted additional powers to combat the coronavirus.
The meeting on Sunday was held in the Foreign Ministry’s auditorium as the regular cabinet meeting rooms were not large enough to accommodate all the ministers while maintaining social distancing, according to reports.
Opposition chairman Yair Lapid issued a statement blasting the government after ministers approved funding for the newly formed offices created by the Gantz-Netanyahu coalition deal.
“The government handed half a billion shekels to itself today. Not for the self-employed, not for the unemployed, not for small businesses, but for itself,” said Lapid.
“For redundant offices like the Water Resources Ministry, the nonexistent Community Empowerment Ministry and for deputy ministers that no one needs. Detached lawmakers, we’ve had enough of you.”
Separately, last Wednesday, a bill allowing ministers to give up their positions as Knesset members in order to enable a different member of their party slate to take their spot in parliament passed its preliminary Knesset plenary reading. The so-called Norwegian Law — which still requires three more votes to become law — would allow any MK who is appointed to a cabinet post to resign temporarily from the Knesset, thereby permitting the next candidate on the party’s list to enter parliament in his or her stead.
The opposition has blasted the bill, and the coalition’s rush to pass it, as a way of pushing more people into sweetheart jobs on the taxpayers’ dime.
Tapper: Some of Trump’s allies think he’s not up to the task – CNN
In Days of Discord, President Trump Fans the Flames – The New York Times
WASHINGTON — With a nation on edge, ravaged by disease, hammered by economic collapse, divided over lockdowns and even face masks and now convulsed once again by race, President Trump’s first instinct has been to look for someone to fight.
Over the last week, America reeled from 100,000 pandemic deaths, 40 million people out of work and cities in flames over a brutal police killing of a subdued black man. But Mr. Trump was on the attack against China, the World Health Organization, Big Tech, former President Barack Obama, a cable television host and the mayor of a riot-torn city.
While other presidents seek to cool the situation in tinderbox moments like this, Mr. Trump plays with matches. He roars into any melee he finds, encouraging street uprisings against public health measures advanced by his own government, hurling made-up murder charges against a critic, accusing his predecessor of unspecified crimes, vowing to crack down on a social media company that angered him and then seemingly threatening to meet violence with violence in Minneapolis.
As several cities erupted in street protests after the killing of George Floyd, some of them resulting in clashes with the police, Mr. Trump made no appeal for calm. Instead in a series of tweets and comments to reporters on Saturday, he blamed the unrest on Democrats, called on “Liberal Governors and Mayors” to get “MUCH tougher” on the crowds, threatened to intervene with “the unlimited power of our Military” and even suggested his own supporters mount a counterdemonstration.
The turmoil came right to Mr. Trump’s doorstep for the second night in a row on Saturday as hundreds of people protesting Mr. Floyd’s death and the president’s response surged in streets near the White House. While most were peaceful, chanting “black lives matter” and “no peace, no justice,” some spray painted scatological advice for Mr. Trump, ignited small fires, set off firecrackers and threw bricks, bottles and fruit at Secret Service and United States Park Police officers, who responded with pepper spray.
The police cordoned off several blocks around the Executive Mansion as a phalanx of camouflage-wearing National Guard troops marched across nearby Lafayette Square. A man strode through the streets yelling, “Time for a revolution!” The image of the White House surrounded by police in helmets and riot gear behind plastic shields fueled the sense of a nation torn apart.
Mr. Trump praised the Secret Service for being “very cool” and “very professional” but assailed the Democratic mayor of Washington for not providing city police officers to help on Friday night, which she denied. While governors and mayors have urged restraint, Mr. Trump seemed more intent on taunting the protesters, bragging about the violence that would have met them had they tried to get onto White House grounds.
“Big crowd, professionally organized, but nobody came close to breaching the fence,” the president wrote on Twitter on Saturday morning. “If they had they would have been greeted with the most vicious dogs, and most ominous weapons, I have ever seen. That’s when people would have been really badly hurt, at least. Many Secret Service agents just waiting for action.”
His suggestion that his own supporters should come to the White House on Saturday foreshadowed the possibility of a clash outside his own doors. “Tonight, I understand, is MAGA NIGHT AT THE WHITE HOUSE???” he wrote on Twitter, using the acronym for his first campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again.”
Asked about the tweet later, he denied encouraging violence by his supporters. “They love African-American people,” he said. “They love black people. MAGA loves the black people.” By evening, however, Mr. Trump’s supporters were not in evidence among the crowds at the White House.
Mayor Muriel E. Bowser of Washington responded sharply on Saturday morning, saying her police department will protect anyone in Washington, including the president, and by Saturday evening her officers were out in force around the White House.
But she called the president a source of division. “While he hides behind his fence afraid/alone, I stand w/ people peacefully exercising their First Amendment Right after the murder of #GeorgeFloyd & hundreds of years of institutional racism,” she wrote. “There are no vicious dogs & ominous weapons. There is just a scared man. Afraid/alone …”
After his morning barrage, Mr. Trump tried to recalibrate later in the day, devoting the opening of a speech at the Kennedy Space Center following the SpaceX rocket launch to the unrest in the streets and clearly trying to temper his bellicose tone.
“I understand the pain that people are feeling,” he said. “We support the right of peaceful protesters and we hear their pleas. But what we are now seeing on the streets of our cities has nothing to do with justice or peace. The memory of George Floyd is being dishonored by rioters, looters and anarchists.”
The days of discord have put the president’s leadership style on vivid display. From the start of his ascension to power, Mr. Trump has presented himself as someone who seeks conflict, not conciliation, a fighter, not a peacemaker. That appeals to a substantial portion of the public that sees in him a president willing to take on an entrenched and entitled establishment.
But the confluence of perilous health, economic and now racial crises has tested his approach and left him struggling to find his footing just months before an election in which polls currently show him behind.
“The president seems more out-of-touch and detached from the difficult reality the country is living than ever before,” said Carlos Curbelo, a former Republican congressman from Florida who has been critical of Mr. Trump. “At a moment when America desperately needs healing, the president is focused on petty personal battles with his perceived adversaries.”
Such a moment would challenge any president, of course. It has been a year of national trauma that started out feeling like another 1998 with impeachment, then another 1918 with a killer pandemic combined with another 1929 given the shattering economic fallout. Now add to that another 1968, a year of deep social unrest.
It is fair to say that 2020 has turned out to be a year that has frayed the fabric of American society with an accumulation of anguish that has whipsawed the country and its people. But in some ways, Mr. Trump has become a totem for the nation’s polarization rather than a mender of it.
“I am daily thinking about why and how a society unravels and what we can do to stop the process,” said Timothy Naftali, a presidential historian at New York University. “The calamity these days is about more than Trump. He is just the malicious con man who lives to exploit our vulnerabilities.”
As the nation has confronted a coronavirus pandemic at the same time as the greatest economic catastrophe since the Great Depression, whatever unified resolve that existed at the beginning of the twin crises quickly evaporated into yet another cultural clash. And the president has made everything into just another partisan dispute rather than a source of consensus, from when and how to reopen to whether to wear a mask in public.
Mr. Trump led no national mourning as the death toll from the coronavirus passed 100,000 beyond lowering the flags at the White House, posting a single tweet and offering a passing comment on camera only when asked about it. Rather than seek agreement on the best and safest way to restore daily life, he threatened to “override” governors who prevented places of worship from resuming crowded services.
“Crisis leadership demands much more from the White House than irresponsible threats on social media,” said Meena Bose, director of the Peter S. Kalikow Center for the Study of the American Presidency at Hofstra University.
Mr. Trump’s initial response to the rioting in Minneapolis, where a police officer has been charged with murder after kneeling on Mr. Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes as he cried out that he could not breathe, underscored the president’s most instinctive response to national challenges. Threatening to send in troops, he wrote early Friday morning that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
Only after a cascade of criticism did he try to walk it back, posting a new tweet 13 hours later, suggesting that all he had meant was that “looting leads to shooting” by people in the street.
“I don’t want this to happen, and that’s what the expression put out last night means,” he said, a reformulation that convinced few if any of his critics.
Even some of Mr. Trump’s usual allies were distressed at the original shooting tweet. Geraldo Rivera, the television and radio host who often spends time with Mr. Trump at the president’s Mar-a-Lago club in Florida, decried “the recklessness” of that message and called on the president “to self-censor himself.”
“Come on, what is this, sixth grade?” Mr. Rivera said on Fox News. “You don’t put gasoline on the fire. That’s not calming anybody.” He added: “All he does is diminish himself.”
But many of the president’s defenders rejected the idea that he had mishandled the crises, pressing the argument that Democrats and the news media were to blame for the turmoil in the streets, which spread from Minneapolis to New York, Atlanta, Washington, Louisville, Portland and other cities.
“Keep track of cities where hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage and serious injuries and death will take place,” Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former New York mayor who has served as Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer, wrote on Twitter on Friday night. “All Democrat dominated cities with criminal friendly policies. This is the future if you elect Democrats.”
Bernard B. Kerik, the former New York City police commissioner who was pardoned by Mr. Trump for tax fraud earlier this year, amplified the point on Twitter. “It should be no surprise that every one of these cities that the anarchist have taken over, are the same cities run by leftist Democrats with the highest violence, murder and poverty rates,” he wrote on Twitter. “They can’t handle their cities normally, so how are they going to deal with this?”
Mr. Trump, who this past week retweeted a video of a supporter saying that “the only good Democrat is a dead Democrat” (though the supporter insisted he meant that in a political sense), picked up the theme on Saturday.
With crowds visible from his upstairs windows, Mr. Trump reached for his phone and again assailed the “Democrat Mayor” of Minneapolis for not responding more vigorously and called on New York to unleash its police against crowds. “Let New York’s Finest be New York’s Finest,” he wrote. “There is nobody better, but they must be allowed to do their job!”
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