“Opioid abuse has become a crippling problem throughout the United States,” Trump said at the session. “This is a total epidemic. And I think it's almost untalked-about compared to the severity that we're witnessing.”
Ending opioid addiction was a centerpiece of Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, as well as Christie's, and advisers say the president is committed to using the powers of his office to raise awareness and develop new policies to tackle the problem.
“The issue causes enormous pain and destruction to everyday families in every state in this country,” Christie said. He added: “Addiction is a disease, and it is a disease that can be treated. Folks don't talk about it … People are afraid and ashamed to talk about drug addiction.”
Trump's team hopes its focus on drug policy can help generate bipartisan support. White House press secretary Sean Spicer said at his briefing Wednesday that “stopping this epidemic is an issue that every American, regardless of their political background, can and must get behind.”
Spicer said the Trump administration already has taken executive action to make it easier for law enforcement to dismantle drug cartels. But he was unable to provide a timeline of when the White House will take more sweeping action on a problem that has plagued communities for years and in many ways is becoming worse.
“It is a big, big issue that is plaguing our country, plaguing our communities and plaguing our families, and so I wish that I could give you an answer and say: ‘This is how we are going to solve the problem,’ but I think that the first step is understanding the problem and the magnitude of it and looking at how we approach it holistically,” he said.
Spicer did not mention funding, an area where the administration is facing criticism. Advocates for those struggling with drug prevention were alarmed when the president supported the Republican health-care legislation, now dead, which would have cut off funding for opioid treatment.
And while Trump's proposed budget touts spending an additional $500 million on prevention efforts and opioid treatment, that funding was approved during the last Congress and was signed into law by then President Obama — a point Democrats pushed Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price to acknowledge at a hearing Wednesday.
Christie told the Associated Press that Trump asked him to lead the effort while serving as governor and that he has “no interest in having a permanent role” in the administration.
“He asked me to help with this, and I’m going to,” Christie told the AP. “It’s an issue that I care about a lot in New Jersey and for the country, and so the president asked me to do this, and I was happy to.”
The drug commission is part of the new White House Office of American Innovation, chaired by Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser. Christie's role has been in the works for several weeks. On Tuesday, Christie and Kushner had lunch to discuss the project.
The two men were said to have had an icy relationship during the campaign and transition period — Christie was removed as chairman of Trump's transition and replaced by Vice President Pence — but have been working together amicably in recent weeks, according to White House officials.
Joining Trump, Christie and Sessions at the Wednesday session were Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin and Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly. Also in attendance: Don Wright, acting assistant secretary for health; Charles “Chuck” Rosenberg, acting administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration; Richard Baum, acting director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy; Mariano Rivera, a former New York Yankee and a philanthropist; Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi; Bertha Madras, a Harvard Medical School professor and former drug policy official; Pam Garozzo, a drug awareness advocate; AJ Solomon, co-founder of the Victory Bay Recovery Center; and Vanessa Vitolo, a recovering addict.
“Drug cartels have spread their deadly industry across our nation, and the availability of cheap narcotics — some of it comes in cheaper than candy — has devastated our communities,” Trump said. “It’s really one of our biggest problems … and nobody really wants to talk about it.”
Jenna Johnson contributed to this report.