The public support for Trump’s use of hydroxychloroquine is hardly surprising given the premium Trump has placed on loyalty among his Cabinet members. But even for an administration known for fealty, the declarations of support for a drug the US Food and Drug Administration has warned might be dangerous were notable.
Trump was hosting his Cabinet at the White House for the first time in months as the coronavirus pandemic has consumed the administration. Unlike previous sessions, Tuesday’s meeting occurred in the East Room, which provides more space than the West Wing Cabinet Room for officials to spread out.
No officials wore masks, though they were spaced several feet apart and spoke into microphones.
As they went around the table, the Cabinet members uniformly praised Trump’s handling of the pandemic and tried to insist the worst may be over.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who is overseeing attempts to revive a stalled US economy, presented Trump with a debit card that had been embossed with his name — an example, he said, of what “many Americans will now get so we can get their money to them even quicker.”
And Alex Azar, the secretary of Health and Human Services, sought to reinforce Trump’s claims that keeping Americans under lockdown would carry their own health risks.
Azar said the “virus-induced recession,” according to one estimate, would cause “an extra 65,000 deaths from suicide, drug-overdose, alcohol-abuse over the years.”
It was a uniform message from an administration that has, at moments, appeared disjointed during the coronavirus pandemic. Even as officials sought to project uniform confidence, however, examples of the contradictory messages seeped through.
When Trump was questioned why he decided to take hydroxychloroquine to prevent coming down with Covid-19 — a disclosure he’d made a day earlier — he dismissed his own government’s warnings against using the drug for coronavirus, including from the FDA, which has said the drug should only be used in hospitals or clinical trials because they can kill or cause serious side effects.
“I think it’s worthwhile as a line of defense, and I plan on staying on it for a little while longer. I’m just very curious myself,” he said.
He went on to bash a study of Veterans Affairs patients who received the drug, calling it false because it was administered to sick people who “were ready to die.”
“Everybody was old, had bad problems with hearts,” Trump said of the study. “So immediately when it came out they gave a lot of false information.”
But even that study was funded partly by Trump’s own administration through the National Institutes of Health. Speaking at Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting, Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie insisted the drug was safe, despite the study.
“I want to knock down the phony story that this is somehow the VA going back on what the President told us to do,” he said.
Still, when a reporter asked Trump whether any member of his Cabinet was also taking hydroxychloroquine, none spoke up.
“Many of them would take it if they thought it was necessary,” Trump said.
As part of the meeting, Trump signed an executive order he described as “instructing federal agencies to use any and all authority to weigh, suspend and eliminate unnecessary regulations that impede economic recovery.”
“And we want to leave it that way,” the President said. “We want to leave it that way. In some cases, we won’t be able to, but in other cases, we will.”
But when pressed later how his administration was planning to return more than 35 million unemployed Americans to work, Trump lashed out.
“I think we’ve announced a plan. We’re opening up our country. Just a rude person, you are,” he said.
Tuesday’s meeting came as Trump stretches the limits of presidential power by dismissing inspectors general and inserting himself into Justice Department investigations into political rivals.
The coronavirus outbreak has dominated most agencies’ work for the past months, though recent actions have demonstrated that the work begun earlier this year to install more loyalists across the government continues apace.
Trump was angered by the number of administration officials who provided unflattering testimony during the impeachment proceedings and instructed aides to find ways to replace or undermine them.
Part of the effort included elevating John McEntee, the President’s former body man, to run the presidential personnel office. McEntee told agency officials at a meeting in February to expect staffing changes and movements across the government, people familiar with the meeting told CNN.
Another official said McEntee indicated he planned to first focus his efforts on personnel at the State Department and Department of Defense. He also told the liaisons that promotions and significant staff changes should not occur without prior approval from the presidential personnel office.
Since then, the coronavirus outbreak has preoccupied large swaths of the administration and Trump has been fixated on the federal response to the crisis, as well as how his actions are being perceived in the media.
The outbreak exposed weaknesses in his administration, including at the Department of Health and Human Services and some of its entities such as the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Trump has at times expressed frustration at the officials in charge of the coronavirus response effort, though is not currently moving to terminate anyone.
At the same time, efforts to locate and eliminate officials deemed disloyal continued, including over the past month, when Trump replaced or removed four inspectors general from his administration he viewed as Obama holdovers or as part of the so-called “deep state” he believes is working against him.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Monday that he had asked Trump to remove Linick because the independent watchdog was “undermining” the department and wasn’t performing in a way that the top US diplomat wanted him to.
Democrats on Capitol Hill have said Linick was probing whether Pompeo made a staffer perform a variety of personal errands, including walking his dog, as well as completing an investigation into Pompeo’s decision to fast-track an $8 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia.
At the Justice Department, Attorney General William Barr has also continued to draw criticism for interfering in cases involving Trump’s former political advisers, Roger Stone and Michael Flynn, and softening prosecutors’ stances toward them for political reasons.
On Monday, Barr tried to tamp down speculation that a review of the Russia probe that began in 2016 would result in criminal charges against former President Barack Obama, saying instead that he was attempting to curtail the politicization of Justice Department investigations.
“Our concern over potential criminality is focused on others,” Barr added.
Later, Trump said he was surprised by Barr’s comments.