The Real Story about My 11th Day at the FDA (part 1)

Commissioner Stephen Hahn makes me his scapegoat

“I’m removing you from your position immediately,” the FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn said to me.  He was leaning toward me in the chair, with his elbows on his legs and hands grasped in front of him. Hahn looked so comfortable and pleasant that I didn’t grasp that he was giving me bad news and hurting me. 

I squeezed my eyes shut and shook my head back and forth. “What?” I asked, in shock. That Friday morning in August 2020 was just my second week as Assistant Commissioner for Media Affairs at the FDA. I still didn’t know where to find the bathroom. 

“I’ve decided to remove you from your position,” he repeated. “I have an email right there,” he said, pointing at his Apple laptop on the desk behind him. “I’m sending that to HHS as soon as we finish talking.” 

Hahn is bald and has very big blue eyes that he kept focused on me, never looking away. He had been a cancer doctor for 30 years before he was appointed by Pres. Donald Trump to run the Food and Drug Administration. He only started his job in the beginning of 2020, right before COVID hit.

Hahn was new to the nastiness of politics, but I guess all those years of telling patients they had cancer trained him in delivering unexpected, terrible news without emotion. 

“But I didn’t do anything wrong,” I pleaded, like a child. 

“Oh, I know!” he exclaimed loudly while sitting up straight. “But I was up all night on the phone with my commissioners, and they all agreed that this is the only way to stop all these media stories.”  

Hahn had screwed up and was making me his scapegoat.

The Convalescent Plasma Mistake and the Vaccines

The media stories Hahn referred to were all the reporters writing about how Hahn had falsely claimed five days earlier that 35% more COVID patients lived after getting treated with convalescent plasma.

Hahn said it at a live White House press conference, and Pres. Trump repeated it. I wasn’t at the White House to staff Hahn because my direct boss, Wolf Wagner, said he was going to it and told me to stay home. After the press conference, Hahn apologized and said he made a mistake. But he never explained why.

So five days later, we were still in damage control. That Friday morning I met with Hahn, The Washington Post editorial was about him. The headline was: “The guardians of public health are allowing Trump to undermine and humiliate them.” The editorial board wrote:

Such embarrassing mistakes can sink public confidence at a time when trust is absolutely essential for the success of a vaccine that will face FDA scrutiny and approval. Dr. Hahn’s error was strike two for the FDA after the White House earlier demanded and won an emergency-use authorization for the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine, which has proved useless in fighting the virus. The FDA later withdrew it.

I had been fielding calls all week from the major outlets -- The New York Times, The Washington Post, AP, Reuters -- who were writing what they called a  “tick tock” of what happened behind the scenes that led to Hahn’s now infamous 35% claim. The reporters kept talking about the negative reaction from the “FDA community” to the plasma announcement. 

The Washington Post was correct that Hahn’s exaggeration of the benefits of convalescent plasma treatment was not the real public relations problem. The underlying issue was if the FDA commissioner would — supposedly — lie about a COVID treatment to please Trump, then he could lie about the safety of the vaccines that were coming to him for emergency approval in a few months.

Vaccine hesitancy was at its worst levels. The percentage of Americans who were willing to take the vaccine at that point had plummeted over the summer from 70 percent to less than 50 percent. Public faith in the independence of the FDA was a serious problem.

“Going Home”

That meeting with Hahn was only the third time I had been to the massive FDA campus in White Oak, MD.  We had been working in the small FDA suite inside the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) so Hahn could be close to the White House and the other leaders during the pandemic. 

The first time I drove out to the FDA campus was four days after I started so that I could get my work computer and cell phone. I had missed hundreds of secure emails.

The second time I drove out to White Oak was two days earlier. Hahn held a meeting with the other White House appointees about how he was going to change things after the convalescent plasma disaster.

He declared that, from that day on, he would work from home or White Oak. He said that he would never again go to the White House or HHS unless he had a meeting. 

Hahn gave us a “Jerry Maguire” type speech.  He said he would fire anyone who was not  “on the team” and could not work together with the others. 

He also said that he wanted to be clear that we work for him directly, not the political appointees at HHS and not the White House. He added that, if any of us couldn’t go along with this order, then quit now or get fired. No one spoke. He asked us to say out loud if we could agree to his terms. We all did.

I was not surprised by the Jerry Maguire meeting because he’d already told me most of this on the phone earlier that day. He said he had decided that he was “going home” -- meaning working from his FDA office in Maryland. He also told me we had to “get away from the evil”, referring to both HHS appointees and the White House.

The “Deep State” at FDA

Since I had not broken any of his terms — taking orders from HHS appointees or not working as a team, I did not understand why Hahn would fire me. I knew it wasn’t personal. We got along well.

So when he explained that his advisors inside the FDA were telling him that getting rid of me would stop his bad press, I was back on comfortable ground. I’ve been doing crisis communication most of my career, from Capitol Hill during 9/11 to the State Department when we were at war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Steve, that is a terrible idea,” I said calmly. “You’re going to end up with days of gossipy stories about me and you — and you and Trump — and nothing about the announcement today on Remdesivir or get back on track with plasma donations. Reporters love stories with people and narratives much more than policy.  If you do this, it’ll make things much worse for you.”

He shook his head and insisted, “They all said this is the only way to handle it.” I assumed “they” were all career FDA employees. Hahn and I were among the 10 or so at the FDA as presidential appointees, which means our loyalty and orders came from the White House. The so-called Deep State did not like any of us. 

“You’re making a big mistake,” I said, still thinking professionally and not yet about the impact on my own life.

“It’s done. I’m sending out the email about it. But I wanted to tell you face to face first,” he said cooly.

Now I was scared. I was about to get hit by a tidal wave of bad press. I’d been through this before, and I felt the familiar knot in my stomach and shaking in my legs. (Read the section called “Emily Posts Newsletter” in this story to understand what it feels like to go through a public political scandal.)

Then Hahn smiled. “But, hey, I would really like you to stay on as my senior advisor. You don’t have to say yes right now, but I would really like you to stay on to help me. I’m using you.”

I must have made an expression because he caught himself. “I don't know how to say it — well I’ll just say it — I just mean I’m using you because I need your skills. I don't have anyone else here who knows how to do communications like you do.” 

A compliment on my professional skills while being fired in a publicity stunt was hard to absorb all at once. I just wanted to avoid the public humiliation as long as possible.

This story continues in part 2. Click here to read about the rest of the meeting with Hahn and more about inside of the FDA and the Trump administration pandemic response. 
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