WASHINGTON — President Trump declined to say Monday whether he had confidence in his nominee to be the nation's next drug czar, saying he would "look into" a report that his hand-picked candidate led a successful effort by the drug industry to undermine the ability of law enforcement officials to stop suspicious shipments of opioids flooding American communities.
The Washington Post/60 Minutes reported on Sunday that Rep. Tom Marino, a Pennsylvania Republican and Trump's drug czar nominee, has deep ties to the drug industry and pushed a bill in Congress making it harder for the Drug Enforcement Agency to halt drug shipments that posed an “imminent danger” to the community.
"We're going to look into the report," Trump said during an impromptu news conference on Monday. "We're going to take it very seriously."
In the wake of the Post/60 Minutes story, Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin called on Trump to withdraw Marino's nomination, saying the congressman is "unfit" for the job and cannot be trusted to confront the opioid epidemic.
"We need someone leading the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy who believes we must protect our people, not the pharmaceutical industry,” the West Virginia senator said in Monday's letter.
Marino's spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Manchin's letter. That was not the only fallout from the Post/60 Minutes probe.
Sen. Claire McCaskill said Monday she would try to repeal the 2016 law, written by Marino and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. Before that law went into effect, the DEA had been using that authority to crack down on drug distribution companies that were sending millions of opioids to what law enforcement believed were corrupt doctors and Internet pharmacies, which in turn were doling out the drugs to opioid addicts.
The 2016 law made it “virtually impossible for the DEA to freeze suspicious narcotic shipments from the companies,” the Post probe found, citing internal Justice Department documents and an independent assessment by an administrative law judge. “That powerful tool had allowed the agency to immediately prevent drugs from reaching the street.”
Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., one of the original co-sponsors of the 2016 law, also suggested she would be open to revisiting it.
"If there are any unintended consequences from this bipartisan legislation — which was passed unanimously by the House, Senate and was signed into law by President Obama — they should be addressed immediately," said a spokesperson for Blackburn, who recently announced a Senate bid.
Marino's nomination was controversial even before the Post/60 Minutes exposé. Treatment advocates have highlighted the Pennsylvania Republican's push to lock up low-level drug users against their will, until they agree to treatment.
"One treatment option I have advocated for years would be placing non-dealer, nonviolent drug abusers in a secured hospital-type setting under the constant care of health professionals," Marino said at a May 2016 hearing. "Once the person agrees to plead guilty to possession, he or she will be placed in an intensive treatment program until experts determine that they should be released under intense supervision."
He suggested criminal charges would be dropped once the person completed treatment. "The charges are only filed to have an incentive for that person to enter the hospital-slash-prison, if you want to call it," Marino said.
“He’s a former prosecutor who took a hard line on drug issues and made some troubling comments around the idea of forcibly hospitalizing people who are caught with illegal drugs," said Grant Smith, deputy director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, which advocates harm-reduction strategies. "That really runs counter to the idea of treating this as a health issue. There is no other health issue where you forcibly hospitalize someone against their will.”
Andrew Kolodny, a physician and co-director of the Opioid Policy Research Center at Brandeis University, called Marino an “awful pick” to set the nation’s drug policy.
“Marino has no qualifications for that role,” Kolodny told USA TODAY. “My understanding is that Trump has selected him as a political payback because he was a political supporter.”
Marino was one of the earliest House Republicans to back Trump in the 2016 presidential race. He later served on Trump's transition team.
Kolodny said the drug czar position should be filled by someone who fully understands the opioid epidemic and can harness all the federal government’s resources to confront it.
“Marino’s only experience that I can see in terms of the opioid epidemic was pushing through legislation that weakened the DEA’s ability to go after legal narcotics distributors,” Kolodny said.
Trump on Monday called Marino a "great guy" and noted that he was "a very early supporter of mine," before adding: "We're going to be looking into Tom" and determining whether he's the right person for the drug czar post.
Trump also said he would declare the opioid epidemic a national emergency next week, a step he first embraced in August and has not yet officially done. Trump has come under pressure for the delay in taking that step, which could expand access to treatment and increase the availability of overdose reversal drugs.
Trump said it required a lot of work before he could officially declare the emergency.
"That is a very very big statement. It’s a very important step," the president said. "And to get to that step, a lot of work has to be done ... We’re going to be doing it next week, OK?"
Contributing: Joel Ebert