The Trump administration pressured the Food and Drug Administration, including former FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn, to authorize unproven treatments for Covid-19 and the first Covid-19 vaccines on an accelerated timeline, according to a report released Wednesday by Democrats on the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis.
Senior Trump administration officials fought for the reauthorization of hydroxychloroquine, a drug normally used to treat malaria and lupus, after the FDA revoked its emergency clearance of the drug because data showed it was ineffective against Covid-19 and could lead to potentially dangerous side effects, the report found. The Democrats’ investigation also documents potential influence from former White House officials regarding the FDA’s decision to authorize convalescent plasma, and White House attempts to block the FDA from collecting additional safety data on Covid-19 vaccines in order to get them to the public before the 2020 presidential election.
“The Select Subcommittee’s findings that Trump White House officials deliberately and repeatedly sought to bend FDA’s scientific work on coronavirus treatments and vaccines to the White House’s political will are yet another example of how the prior Administration prioritized politics over public health,” House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), who also chairs the subcommittee, said in a statement.
“These assaults on our nation’s public health institutions undermined the nation’s coronavirus response,” he added.
Much of these pressure campaigns were reported in early 2020 by POLITICO and other outlets and President Donald Trump publicly called out the FDA and its commissioner on multiple occasions. But the committee report offers new color, through emails, texts and official testimony from Hahn about just how persistent some of these efforts inside the White House were throughout the summer and fall of 2020.
A substantial portion of the report focuses on Peter Navarro, a former trade adviser under Trump, who worked on the administration’s coronavirus response. Navarro collaborated frequently with Steven Hatfill, an adjunct virology professor at George Washington University, who was one of Navarro’s advisers and worked on the federal coronavirus response.
Pushing for hydroxychloroquine: According to emails collected over the course of the subcommittee’s investigation, Navarro and Hatfill rallied other White House officials to pressure Hahn to reinstate the emergency use authorization for hydroxychloroquine after the agency revoked it in June 2020. At one point, Hatfill characterized the disagreement between White House officials and the FDA as a forthcoming “knife fight” to an unnamed, outside ally over email.
The report also found that Navarro tasked Hatfill with coming up with a presentation to get the FDA to reauthorize the drug. At one point, Hatfill wrote to William O’Neill, a cardiologist at the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit, and suggested conducting a prophylactic study of the medication in a correctional facility experiencing a coronavirus outbreak. (The report doesn’t say how O’Neill responded to the request.)
Hatfill and Navarro sought to discredit other prominent health officials who spoke out against the use of hydroxychloroquine, including Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. The two discussed plans to get the Department of Justice and the Health and Human Services Department’s inspector general to conduct an investigation into Fauci and his email use. Hatfill, according to the report, pushed for Fauci’s removal throughout the fall, telling Navarro in September, “You really need to consider what is likely to happen over the next 2 months if this little idiot and his Covid treatment panel is not fired.” Two weeks later, Hatfill wrote that “[t]here will be a house cleaning after elections. [A] really good cleaning.”
In a statement to POLITICO, Navarro maintained that he believed hydroxychloroquine was a valuable treatment for Covid-19, and that he was justified in carrying out Trump’s orders to apply pressure to the FDA to make sure the drug was widely accessible. “The partisan House Select Subcommittee report ‘wrongly’ perpetuates one of the most deadly lies of the pandemic, namely that the safe and powerful therapeutic to treat COVID, hydroxychloroquine, was somehow dangerous,” he said. “I would lose that battle with the FDA and hundreds of thousands of Americans would needlessly die because of Stephen Hahn, Janet Woodcock, Rick Bright, Tony Fauci, and the broader FDA bureaucracy. The result will forever be a stain on the FDA and shame on the House Subcommittee for perpetuating the lie.”
Political pressure: In multiple instances, the subcommittee said it found evidence of senior Trump officials planning to take actions that could benefit the administration politically.
Officials tried to pressure the FDA into authorizing convalescent plasma around the time of the Republican National Convention, emails reveal. The proposed investigation into Fauci would take place around the time of the 2020 presidential election in an attempt to sway voters in favor of Trump, the report says.
The Trump administration also tried to pressure the FDA to authorize the first Covid-19 vaccines ahead of the presidential election. When Hahn testified to the subcommittee in January 2022, he said that White House officials said they would not sign off on emergency use authorization language that required a 60-day safety follow up for late-stage clinical trials. Ultimately, the FDA went ahead with the 60-day follow-up plan without an explicit blessing from the White House, though the White House later cleared it.
And their emails: The report also found evidence that Navarro and Hatfill had used a private email server for federal communications. The Department of Justice has sued Navarro get him to turn over other emails sent from his personal email account related to presidential matters, first revealed by a separate report from the the subcommittee.
“All my White House records are digitally preserved pending the resolution of a civil suit filed by the National Archives, which increasingly appears to have been unlawfully weaponized by the Department of Justice against both me and President Trump,” Navarro said.
Hatfill could not be reached for comment.
This is the second report in a series of investigations into the way Trump administration officials managed the coronavirus. The first found that the administration leaned heavily on the herd immunity theory around the virus’ spread to delay federal action. The committee is still investigating other aspects of the federal response to the pandemic.