By ddiamond@politico.com (Dan Diamond)

HHS Secretary Alex Azar, the president’s point man on Obamacare and drug prices, has reluctantly taken on a new role — public explainer and punching bag for the migrant crisis created by Donald Trump’s zero tolerance border policy.

Azar — an even-keeled technocrat whom the White House enlisted as the fixer after Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen’s highly criticized press conference last month — has since been attacked by dozens of lawmakers, interrupted by protesters and pilloried on cable TV. Meanwhile, he’s working through a thicket of court orders and red tape to try to reunite thousands of migrant children in his custody with their parents, including 102 under the age of 5. It’s sapped Azar’s time and pulled his agency away from other priorities, such as lowering drug costs and helping solve the opioid epidemic.

“He didn’t want the job — but no one did,” said an HHS official, who asked to speak on background because he did not want to discuss internal agency politics. “And he’s doing his best, but he stepped into the middle of a shit storm. It’s a tough situation.”

While making some progress on a tight court-ordered deadline, HHS has already fallen short of the first test. After Azar pledged to reunite all the migrant children under age 5 with their parents, HHS said as many as 64 won’t be moved by a Tuesday deadline.

It’s an uncomfortable position for a Cabinet member who’s largely avoided negative headlines and been praised by Trump as “one of the great professionals.” His allies stress that Azar, a proven problem-solver in the George W. Bush administration and later at drug giant Eli Lilly, inherited a spiraling crisis. The policy of family separation began in the White House and DHS — and it’s not clear the HHS secretary even agreed with it, his supporters say.

Azar took ownership in good-soldier fashion, knowing the sprawl of his bureaucracy — HHS takes custody of refugees — would deposit the crisis in his lap.

“HHS is not responsible for the policy. HHS is responsible for the result of the policy,” said a longtime colleague and adviser, who declined to speak on the record about the sensitive topic. “And unfairly, the administration and the press is looking in and expecting them to solve it.”

Azar has pulled long hours personally reviewing case files of migrant children — the agency shared a photo last week of him in the HHS emergency center, paging through documents after midnight — and has given a half-dozen public briefings or interviews defending the efforts to put families back together.

“Secretary Azar is highly engaged and has ensured HHS is executing its mission to care for minors in our custody and get them placed with a family member or sponsor as soon as possible,” an HHS spokesperson told POLITICO. “He has rolled up his sleeves and has worked to bring together the resources and personnel needed to make that happen and to navigate the challenging circumstances created by a broken immigration system and conflicting court orders.”

But lawmakers in both parties have been frustrated by Azar’s often-vague answers about such basic questions as whether all children above age 5 will be reunited. They also say HHS failed to anticipate logistical challenges and should have moved quicker to reunite separated families.

“I have not felt that HHS has done a very good job in [a] very tough situation,” Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) told Azar in a hearing two weeks ago.

“Azar shucked and jived more than a welterweight,” Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.), after the HHS secretary held a 30-minute call on Friday with members of Congress, then ducked off ahead of questions. “[L]istening to the gibberish from Azar’s mouth, the Trump administration doesn’t have an atom of compassion or competence.”

Even White House officials were said to be upset with Azar after he appeared to dodge some responsibility for the crisis last month, telling a Washington Post roundtable, “immigration policy isn’t really what we at HHS do.”

Azar quickly recalibrated. “We get it. Nobody wants their kids separated from their parents,” he said in a Fox News interview that evening.

The secretary’s supporters say that Azar recognized the need to step forward as the face of the crisis. “It was not a request from the White House necessarily,” said a former HHS official who’s advised Azar. “It’s evolved — and driven out of his sensibility for public service. To dive in and take this on.”

Azar’s efforts to personally manage crisis

As Azar’s public role in handling the migrant issue has grown, the low-key official has become a target on cable TV, online and in person. A protester interrupted the Washington Post event, calling Azar part of “the deportation force.” Lawmakers berated him at congressional hearings, vowing to hold the secretary accountable. His Twitter account has become a pinata for congressional Democrats and liberals to take swings at — no matter what Azar posts.

HHS staff say the secretary has treated the situation like a full-blown crisis, activating his agency’s emergency response team and calling for volunteers from across the department. He’s also been hands-on and highly visible, leading press briefings in lieu of his embattled refugee office director Scott Lloyd, including a 45-minute conference call with reporters on Thursday where Azar handled every question but one.

Meanwhile, he’s kept other commitments, like addressing a conference about drug costs on Monday or hosting a school safety commission meeting on Wednesday. Azar also attended Monday’s White House announcement of the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh — a close friend with whom he shared a similar career path for a decade.

While agency staff told POLITICO that the migrant crisis has siphoned time and resources away — and HHS warned Congress last week that lawmakers’ frequent visits have strained efforts to reunite families — Azar has tried to instill confidence and self-reliance, say members of his team.

“He works hard and is here early and late,” said an HHS official who works closely with Azar, calling him a “player-coach” who sets high expectations but also …read more

Read more here: How the new face of the migrant crisis got stuck with the job

About the author

Leave a comment