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The Real Story about my 11th Day at the FDA (Part 2)
Stephen Hahn just wanted to please Donald Trump and get a vaccine authorized fast
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This is part 2 of my story about what really happened at the FDA during the COVID pandemic. Read part 1 here.
When I was talking to the FDA Commissioner, I wasn’t in my normal work clothes which are rented, bright-colored designer dress and heels. I was still wearing exercise clothes - leggings, tank top, sweatshirt and running shoes - with my hair in a ponytail and no makeup. I felt small and insecure without my power wardrobe. If I had known I was getting fired, I would have worn heels.
The commissioner, Dr. Stephen Hahn, had texted to meet at his office after the morning conference calls. I was living downtown in a temporary, furnished apartment because I just moved back to DC from Texas. The apartment was a couple blocks from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), where I had been told to work until two days before. I couldn’t get to the FDA in Maryland that fast. There was no traffic in DC during the pandemic, but it was still 20 miles away.
I decided to just admit the time crunch and so jokingly texted back: “No makeup and workout clothes at 10 or professional dress and look nice at 10:15?”
“Either is ok. Both work for me,” he replied.
I texted back: “Awesome! Coming as real Emily ASAP.”
That was a mistake. I’d never in my career gone to work in casual clothes. But I thought it was more important to be responsive to, what I assumed, was a public health crisis than take the time to put on makeup and blow dry my hair. I jumped in my car and sent a quick email to my two deputies: “Commissioner needs me now in White Oak. Stay tuned. Gotta drive.”
So that’s why I was sitting on the FDA commissioner’s couch in my gym clothes when he told me wanted to “use me” after he publicly fires me.
Down the River
“Why would you fire me but not Wolf?” I asked, referring to Wolf Wagner, who the White House had put in the role of Associate Commissioner for External Affairs at the FDA about two months before I got there. “He was in charge of the plasma rollout.”
I had a “dotted line” to Hahn — per Hahn. But I answered to Wagner, and his department managed the convalescent plasma “rollout.” The prep was pretty much all planned and done before I started at the FDA the week before, so it made no sense to hang it around my neck.
“Oh I’m getting rid of him too,” Hahn said about Wagner. “But he’s in the hospital and had another heart attack, and I’m not firing someone in the hospital.” I learned later that my prayers that day for Wagner not to die were unnecessary since he didn’t have a heart attack, and he wasn’t in the hospital. I assume that he got a heads up that he was about to get axed and called in sick to avoid it as long as possible.
He resurfaced on email later on Friday with no explanation for the medical mystery. I haven’t talked to Wagner directly since then, so I’m just assuming that’s the reason I got all the negative press that day.
Shoot the Messenger
“Of course you can also resign,” Hahn said flatly.
“Why would I resign? I didn't do anything wrong!” I was both scared about being suddenly unemployed and also angry at him for putting me in this position. Hahn looked surprised by my reaction.
“Wouldn't it be better for your career if you resign rather than get fired?”
“No, it isn’t,” I said while trying not to cry. “If you want to get rid of me, you’re going to have to fire me.”
People in DC don’t really resign. They get fired and then come up with an excuse like wanting to spend more time with their family or a health crisis to explain the sudden departure. But I couldn’t afford to be prideful and unemployed with an overpriced apartment, all my belongings in storage and in the middle of a pandemic.
“Do you want me to fire you?” he asked. I think his question was genuine. He was always worried that Pres. Trump would fire him.
“No. If you fire me, I will not take this lying down,” I said. My tough side and survival skills were back on the surface. “I haven’t done anything wrong. And I won’t take the fall for you. I’ll leave this office and return every reporter call and tell them what really happened with the convalescent plasma. And then I’ll go on every morning TV show tomorrow and tell the truth about how you messed up so badly because you’re trying so hard to please the president. And you can’t be trusted to make the vaccine decision.”
He leaned back in his chair and pulled his head back. “You wouldn't do that,” he said.
“Of course I would, Steve. That’s how Washington works.” My heart rate was back to normal now that I didn’t feel completely powerless.
“But that’s bad for the American people,” he said. Now I knew Hahn was grasping at straws. You hear a version of that phrase every day from political people in DC. This -or that - is good - or bad - for the American people. It’s both arrogant and lazy. Who can say what is best for the entire population of the country? But people inside the beltway really believe they know what is best for you.
“It is?” I asked with mock innocence. “Don’t the American people deserve to know their FDA commissioner is making mistakes — or lying — just to please the president? Don’t they need to know that the FDA itself is so messed up inside that it can’t be trusted for the vaccines?”
We looked at each other in silence. But standing up for myself didn’t change his mind. Hahn had resolved to throw me down the river, and there was nothing I could do but tread water.
“I’ve made my decision. You can stay as my senior advisor or resign. Or I can fire you. I hope you’ll stay and help me.”
Since I really didn’t have enough at that point to be a whistleblower or even do an interview that had more than one day’s news, I had to back down. As I’ve written, I found out later more that made me question how and when the Pfizer vaccine was approved to go in arms. But at that point, I just knew what Hahn told me about getting on Trump’s good side and the erratic and unprofessional way the FDA was being managed.
“Can I make some calls and then decide?” I asked.
“Of course!” he said, looking happy and relieved. “Take all the time you need. I’m sending out the email now though.”
Hahn’s sent the email about me to Trump appointees at HHS and FDA leaders who leaked it to reporters, all in about 10 minutes. By the time I walked into his conference room, pulled out my phone and notebook and decided who to call first, CNN started airing live reports that I had been fired. Politics is a blood sport.
Rules of Political Scandals
This was not my first time being all over the news in a political scandal. I’m used to taking the blame and public hits for a boss — just google my name and “palm tree” or my name and “Whatabuger.”
And if Hahn had been loyal to me, I would have done it again. I had been fighting inside for him for two weeks and faced down multiple threats from the White House and the media on his behalf, which I will write about another time. But now that Hahn was selling me out, he lost out on having me get his back. That was his amatuer political mistake.
An unspoken rule in Washington (except during the Trump years) is communications people are never fired in a crisis. This is for two reasons.
First, we are just the messengers — literally, we write and craft messages for the policy -- so if we make a mistake, it’s the policy folks or the lawyers who gave us the wrong information.
Second, when there is a major policy failure or the boss makes a mistake, the press shop handles the mess because we have the relationships with reporters.
That’s why if you google me and FDA, you’ll notice that there are no stories about me in any conservative media outlet. It’s all covered in The New York Times, CNN, “Newsweek”, The Washington Post, Politico, etc — all liberal media. That is a result of both ideology and from my relationships.
I called a friend who is my go-to in the worst times in DC. He’s high profile, so let’s call him Jack. He’s incredibly loyal, caring and can empathize because he’s been through all of this and much worse. After I spilled out the basic details of what had just happened with Hahn, Jack said, “The Left has been planning this attack on you all week, you know that right?”
“No, what do you mean?”
“Media Matters did a huge takedown of you with all their ridiculous accusations, but then the liberal media has started using it to build a case against you,” he said. How did I miss this?
“Well of course you don’t know” Jack said kindly. “You have an actual job to do and wouldn’t have time to read these fringe outlets and Twitter.”
He patiently walked me through my options and then came to a conclusion and said definitively, “Emily, for now, just stay employed. If he’s asking you to stay and help him, that’s what you do. And don’t respond publicly. Take this hit and keep working.” I took notes on his directions as he talked to follow if I panicked when I went back to Hahn.
At this point, the full media attack had begun. CNN must have had me on every half hour because everyone was calling from seeing me on TV, from family to old friends around the country. To give you a sense of the coverage of me, this tweet is from a CNN reporter who claims to be unbiased:
My second call was to a friend who has had her family hit by unfair political scandals and has been the spokesman for a politician in a huge mess, so she understood and had the expertise. She gave me a numbered list of what to do, which I wrote down as one of those decision trees with branches in different directions based on the results. My notes go around the page and upside down on the back side. There are multiple endpoints.
After talking it through with wise and caring old friends, I was clear that my next step was to try to stay at the FDA and help through the vaccine authorization process. Doing that meant I’d have to keep getting punched in the face by the left-wing media and work with the people who publicly humiliated me.
I was in the flight part of fight or flight mode. I wanted to run out of the building and through the campus to my car and drive straight back to Texas. But I had to fight for my job to hopefully clear my name and stay employed.
My body wasn’t even cold
I walked back into Hahn’s office without knocking. One of my deputies who I had emailed an hour earlier, Stephanie, was sitting at his conference table with him. I still felt insecure in my running shoes and gym clothes, but I mustered, “Oh look, my replacement already in the chair. Well she will do a great job.” She stared at her lap.
Hahn said, “Oh no no, we’re just finally doing what you told me to do - get equipment for my zoom interviews.” He was smiling as if this would please me.
“I don’t care at all anymore,” I replied. Hahn seemed to think my loyalty was one sided, a common misconception in the Trump administration.
Stephanie, a career employee, had written the press release for the convalescent plasma authorization which the media and anonymous FDA sources blamed me for being too political.
I found out later that I was replaced by Michael, another career FDA, who was “acting” in my job before I got there, and after stabbing me in the back, got his job back from me, which he has kept in the Biden administration. The “deep state” plays hardball.
I stood by the door. He stayed seated. “I’ve decided I’ll stay and help you,” I said.
He looked genuinely happy and relieved. “I’m so glad!”
I made no expression. “Why is all the media only about me now? Why are they saying I got fired?”
“I didn't know if you were going to stay or not when I sent the email,” Hahn replied.
“Well why are you making me the fall guy for this when you know Wolf was in charge of your rollout? I just got here,” I said in a high pitch voice.
Hahn replied that he wasn’t going to announce Wolf until he was out of the hospital. Since Wanger was never in the hospital, I don’t know if Hahn even sent an email about him later when he removed him from his position and also replaced him with a career employee.
But firing Wagner wouldn’t have taken the heat off Hahn for saying convalescent plasma saved the lives of 35% of patients. Wagner wasn’t a public figure. He wasn’t on TV and wasn’t a target of the Left. I had 10 years of writing and reporting in the public domain. The so-called FDA community thought my conservative politics were distasteful and crass, like Trump, who they hated.
But I was still resolved to follow my friends’ advice and take the hits and stay at the FDA. “I don’t think I should be the one to put the vaccines at risk,” I said thoughtfully, crying a little.
“I moved back from Texas for this job. I believe I’m here for a purpose. I’m not leaving, and I’ll write that strategic plan we’ve been talking about to educate the public so they take the vaccine. But I’m not happy about any of this.”
He nodded. This was just another meeting for him. His career and life wouldn’t change at all that day.
I pulled my top down to try to cover more of my leggings and turned and left the office. I went to another conference room down the commissioner’s suite. I called the White House presidential personnel office which is where the appointees are hired and assigned jobs.
“We heard what Hahn did and just called and yelled at him,” said Matt, whose father I had worked with years ago on the Hill. “He can't fire you. He can’t fire anyone. He is out of line.”
“So what do I do now?” I asked as I saw myself on multiple TVs on the wall. I kept hitting the red “decline” button on my phone.
“Just don’t talk to anyone. Don’t answer any media calls. Lay low for a while and then we’ll figure out what to do,” he instructed. I wanted the press office at the White House or HHS to tell the media the truth, but no one would. I was the sacrificial lamb for the vaccine approval.
My text messages were buzzing constantly and my phone calls kept getting interrupted until I hit the decline button. I spent the day in the conference room crying and talking on the phone to get advice. I just couldn’t calm down enough to drive until the end of the day.
When I finally left the FDA, I drove to my friend’s house. Her husband hugged me and made a crack about seeing me all over his TV. My friend took away my two phones and my apple watch. I cried and drank three glasses of wine in under an hour. She put me to bed in her pajamas in her guest room. I didn't check the news or my phones until I left on Sunday night.
This is how Washington treats people who take on public service. And with Google searches and wikipedia and social media, you never get fully cleared. You just learn to live with that wound of character defamation and often libel.
The Scapegoat Speaks
In the nine months since Hahn made me his scapegoat, I haven’t said anything publicly for several reasons. As I wrote above, the White House kept me in my position and told me to “lay low.” So I stopped using social media and told reporters I couldn’t talk to them on the record.
Also, Hahn’s public announcement and the media jumping to the conclusion that I was fired for incompetence was just a few months before the FDA gave emergency use authorization for the Pfizer COVID vaccine, then the Moderna one.
I’d worked for the government on the pandemic response since the beginning (read more about that here), so I couldn’t put clearing my name above public confidence in the vaccines. I felt that telling the truth publicly could restore my professional credibility, but it could hurt the bigger purpose of my role at the FDA.
Lastly, I have endured the incessant comments by reporters and social media about my supposedly failed tenure at the FDA because I’ve been through so many DC scandals that I feel helpless to change anything. As I wrote a few days ago in reference to this story about the FDA: “I’ve stayed silent about all this because I’ve felt powerless for most of my life. And I thought the public wouldn’t believe me.”
I’m still scared now to face down all the powerful people and organizations in my story. But it’s time to tell the truth and set the record straight, even if no one believes me. Now that vaccine shots are in arms, the country is coming back from the pandemic, so it’s time for me to be brave and stand up for myself.
Next I’ll explain what led up to the FDA commissioner and Pres. Trump exaggerating convalescent plasma benefits.
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