President Trump on Tuesday said his nominee to be the nation's drug czar is withdrawing from consideration for the job — a move that comes in the wake of a Washington Post/“60 Minutes” investigation detailing how the lawmaker helped steer legislation through Congress that weakened the Drug Enforcement Administration’s ability to go after drug distributors, even as opioid-related deaths continue to rise.
“Rep.Tom Marino has informed me that he is withdrawing his name from consideration as drug czar,” Trump said in a Tuesday morning tweet. “Tom is a fine man and a great Congressman!”
Trump declined to express support for Marino Monday when asked about his nominee during a news conference, saying, “we’re going to be looking into” the Post/"60 Minutes” report. Many Democrats and at least one Republican have called for modification or outright repeal of the law the investigation showed was the result of a targeted lobbying campaign by the drug distribution industry.
The president also said Monday that he will declare a national emergency next week to address the opioid epidemic.
Speaking in the White House Rose Garden, Trump defended Marino as “a very early supporter of mine” and “a great guy.” He said that he had seen the reporting in question and that the White House would review the information.
Marino, 65, represents Pennsylvania's 10th Congressional District, a solid-red, mostly rural area of the state that voted overwhelmingly for Trump last year. Marino served as U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania during the Bush administration and previously served as district attorney for Lycoming County, which encompasses Williamsport.
Marino hadn't been making plans for reelection and it wasn't clear Tuesday whether he would seek a fifth term next year. But congressional Democrats pounced, calling him part of a growing scandalized culture among House Republicans, which includes at least one lawmaker under Justice Department investigation, another facing a growing ethics probe and another who announced his retirement this month as tawdry details of an affair came to light.
“At this point, the whole House stinks and that will make it more difficult for House Republicans to defend their imperiled majority,” the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said in a statement.
Marino first won his seat in 2010 and has won each of his races with at least 55 percent of the vote. He sits on the Judiciary, Homeland Security and Foreign Affairs committees.
Following reports Tuesday of Marino's withdrawal, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) called Trump's announcement “the right decision” but said that the nomination “is further evidence that when it comes to the opioid crisis, the Trump administration talks the talk, but refuses to walk the walk.”
Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.), whose state has been hard hit by the opioid epidemic, said he welcomed the news. He was among the first to call for Marino's nomination to be withdrawn.
“We need a drug czar who has seen these devastating effects and who is passionate about ending this opioid epidemic. I look forward to working with President Trump to find a drug czar that will serve West Virginians and our entire country,” he said in a statement Tuesday. “It’s because of the fine journalists at the Washington Post and 60 Minutes that we have avoided appointing someone who could have made the opioid epidemic even worse. I am eager to make this wrong right and work with my colleagues and the President to repeal this horrible law that should have never passed in the first place.”
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who said Monday that she would introduce legislation that would repeal the law weakening the DEA's authority, said in a statement, “I think this is the right decision, and I look forward to the Administration nominating a leader that can aggressively bring to bear every tool the government has to confront what is unquestionably a national public health crisis.”
The law passed in 2016, after a handful of members of Congress, allied with the nation’s major drug distributors, prevailed upon the DEA and the Justice Department to agree to the more industry-friendly legislation, undermining efforts to stanch the flow of pain pills, according to the Post/“60 Minutes” investigation. The DEA had opposed the effort for years.
The law was the crowning achievement of a multifaceted campaign by the drug industry to weaken aggressive DEA enforcement efforts against drug distribution companies that were supplying corrupt doctors and pharmacists who peddled narcotics to the black market. The industry worked behind the scenes with lobbyists and key members of Congress, pouring more than $1 million into their election campaigns.
The chief advocate of the law that hobbled the DEA was Marino, who spent years trying to move it through Congress. It passed after Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) negotiated a final version with the DEA.
Hatch defended his support of the legislation and Marino on Monday, saying in a statement that he “does not believe one flawed report should derail a nominee who has a long history of fighting illegal drug use and of helping individuals with chronic conditions obtain treatment.”
“Let’s not ignore the full story here in the rush toward easy politics,” Hatch added.
Top Obama administration officials have declined to discuss how the bill came to pass.
Michael Botticelli, who led the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy at the time, said neither Justice nor the DEA objected to the bill, removing a major obstacle to the president's approval.
“We deferred to DEA, as is common practice,” he said.
The bill also was reviewed by the White House Office of Management and Budget.
“Neither the DEA nor the Justice Department informed OMB about the policy change in the bill,” a former senior OMB official with knowledge of the issue said recently. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of internal White House deliberations.
The DEA's top official at the time, acting administrator Chuck Rosenberg, declined repeated requests for interviews. A senior DEA official said the agency fought the bill for years in the face of growing pressure from key members of Congress and industry lobbyists. But the DEA lost the battle and eventually was forced to accept a deal it did not want.
“They would have passed this with us or without us,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Our point was that this law was completely unnecessary.”
Loretta E. Lynch, who was attorney general at the time, declined a recent interview request.
Former president Barack Obama also declined to discuss the law. His spokeswoman, Katie Hill, referred reporters to Botticelli's statement.
The DEA and Justice Department have denied or delayed more than a dozen requests filed by The Post and "60 Minutes” under the Freedom of Information Act for public records that might shed additional light on the matter. Some of those requests have been pending for nearly 18 months. The Post is now suing the Justice Department in federal court for some of those records.
Hatch's spokesman, Matt Whitlock, said the DEA, which had undergone a leadership change, did not oppose the bill in the end.
“We worked collaboratively with DEA and DOJ . . . and they contributed significantly to the language of the bill,” Whitlock wrote in an email. “DEA had plenty of opportunities to stop the bill and they did not do so.”
Marino declined repeated requests for comment. Marino's staff called the Capitol Police when The Post and "60 Minutes” tried to interview the congressman at his office Sept. 12. In the past, the congressman has said the DEA was too aggressive and needed to work more collaboratively with drug companies.