ATLANTA — President Trump on Wednesday defended his efforts to address the country’s opioid epidemic, telling a crowd here that his administration had made “tremendous progress” on the issue, which has affected millions of Americans.
“Everyone here today is united by the same vital goal: to liberate our fellow Americans from the grip of drug addiction and to end the opioid crisis once and for all,” Trump said in a speech at the Rx Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit. “We will never stop until our job is done.”
Trump laid out his plan last year to end the opioid epidemic, which focused heavily on punitive measures — including executing some drug dealers — while also pledging to hold pharmaceutical companies accountable for their role in fostering addiction.
White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, who coordinates the White House’s anti-drug efforts, told reporters last month that during Trump’s first year in office, the number of overdose deaths grew by 10 percent, compared with a 22 percent increase the previous year.
The White House has also pointed to a decline in prescriptions for opioid painkillers, stepped-up government efforts to reduce the flow of illegal fentanyl from China and the work of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.
Even so, critics have argued that the Support Act passed by Congress and signed into law by Trump last year lacked sufficient funding for treatment programs.
Introducing Trump at Wednesday’s event was first lady Melania Trump. Also in attendance were Conway, Office of National Drug Control Policy Director James W. Carroll, and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar.
“My husband is here today because he cares deeply about what you are doing to help the millions of Americans affected by the opioid epidemic,” the first lady told the crowd.
Several people who are in recovery from opioid addiction, as well as family members of those who have died of opioid overdoses, spoke at the summit. At one point, Trump briefly put his arm around a Virginia police officer who faltered as he told the story of losing his son to opioids.
During his wide-ranging address, Trump at times veered into campaign stump speech territory. He repeated his call for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and urged Congress to fix “our horrible, obsolete, weak, pathetic immigration laws.”
He delivered a tribute to the country’s law enforcement officers, telling the crowd: “I don’t know if you know it, but over the past 2½ years, law enforcement has become hot. . . . People are loving their law enforcement more than ever before, because we respect them at the highest levels.”
While accusing pharmaceutical companies of “rigging the system against our great seniors,” Trump also slipped in a veiled reference to special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s Russia probe, telling the crowd, “I know all about rigging the system because I had the system rigged on me.”
Then, demonstrating the canny instincts of a TV producer, he offered a faux lament: “Unfortunately, that will be your sound bite tonight.”
Paige Winfield Cunningham and John Wagner contributed to this report.