FDA ousts top spokesperson after 2 weeks

FDA ousts top spokesperson after 2 weeksAugust 29, 2020

FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn has ousted his top spokesperson after only two weeks on the job, following unhappiness with the agency’s communications strategy. The move sets up a potential fight with the White House, according to four individuals with knowledge of the decision.

“Effectively immediately, Emily Miller will no longer serve the FDA as the assistant commissioner for media affairs and will no longer be the official spokesperson for the agency,” Hahn wrote in an email to senior leaders on Friday that was shared with POLITICO. “I will appoint someone to an acting role in that position in the interim.”

Hahn officially removed Miller, a fellow Trump appointee, from her post on Friday morning, ending a tenure that was marked by infighting and a damaging controversy this week over the FDA’s emergency authorization of convalescent plasma as a Covid-19 treatment.

It’s unclear whether Miller will leave the administration altogether or be reassigned elsewhere, although FDA moved swiftly to remove her name and photo from the agency’s Twitter account. Two individuals cautioned that Hahn’s decision still awaits sign-off from the White House personnel office, which helped hire Miller in consultation with Michael Caputo, the top HHS spokesperson and longtime Republican political operative.

POLITICO first reported Miller’s hiring on Aug. 18. HHS and FDA did not immediately respond to request for comment.

Federal health officials soured on Miller within days of her hiring, with her short tenure marked by repeated clashes over the agency’s communications approach.

The FDA had also faced growing criticism over its hiring of Miller, a former reporter for far-right One America News who has no science or medical background, has worked in Republican politics and is known for her extensive writings on gun rights advocacy. The agency’s top communications role is traditionally filled by a career civil servant, and the job opening was initially listed as a role for career civil servants in April before being taken down.

Miller was instead brought on as a political appointee, a decision that disappointed career FDA officials and raised further questions about the agency’s ability to withstand White House political pressure. One of FDA’s first communications rollouts during her tenure was the agency’s emergency authorization of convalescent plasma, with the press release — billing it as “Another Achievement in Administration’s Fight Against Pandemic” — a breach of FDA’s historic focus on science.

In the wake of the plasma announcement, Miller fiercely defended Hahn’s misstatements, falsely asserting on Twitter that the treatment “has shown to be beneficial for 35% of patients.” Hahn has since apologized for overstating the benefits of the treatment, which has not been proven effective.

Miller’s ouster came one day after HHS officials canceled the contract of Wayne Pines, a consultant to Hahn who had advised him to walk back his inaccurate claims about convalescent plasma, said a person with direct knowledge of the matter. Hahn’s late-night mea culpa angered health department officials, and after discovering Pines had aided that decision, they began the process of severing his contract, the person said.

The cancellation of Pines’ contract was “not routine,” said the person with direct knowledge of the matter, refuting HHS’ claims to reporters that Pines was cut loose as part of a broader review.

But HHS’ chief of staff, who canceled the contract, said that Pines’ departure was unrelated to this week’s communications turbulence.

“I learned more about what Wayne Pines had been doing after the contract was canceled,” said Harrison, who said he had no prior knowledge of Pines’ guidance to Hahn, and that he moved to swiftly cancel Pines’ contract on Thursday when he was first briefed on it. “We don’t countenance contracts like this,” Harrison added, pointing to HHS’ history of canceling outside communications contracts.

The communications shake-up comes as current and former officials are fretting that recent actions and personnel moves have harmed the agency’s nonpartisan reputation. Hahn has made repeated appearances with President Donald Trump — and has avoided correcting the president’s misleading or false statements about coronavirus and the agency’s regulatory role.

Meanwhile, Miller’s hire alarmed longtime FDA hands, who believed that her reputation on gun-rights advocacy clashed with the agency’s public health mission.

“The damage that has been done will take at least 10 years to repair,” a former FDA spokesperson told POLITICO.

David Lim contributed to this report.

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