WASHINGTON >> A second Trump administration appointee has been ousted at the Food and Drug Administration in the wake of the agency’s botched announcement about an experimental therapy for COVID-19, which medical experts said damaged the health regulator’s credibility with the public.
An FDA spokesperson confirmed today that John “Wolf” Wagner, a political appointee installed by the White House earlier this summer, is no longer heading the agency’s office of external affairs. Instead, Heidi Rebello, a longtime FDA career official, has stepped into the position on an acting basis, overseeing all FDA public communications. Politico first reported the news.
A spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services said Wagner would take on a new communications position in the department’s office of emergency preparedness and response.
The shakeup comes just five days after conservative communications specialist Emily Miller was removed from her post heading the agency’s press office. Miller served just 11 days on the job and helped coordinate the agency’s announcement that it had allowed the emergency use of convalescent plasma for COVID-19 patients.
That announcement triggered a backlash last week after FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn was forced to correct misstatements that inflated the potential benefits of the therapy. The FDA’s decision to authorize the treatment also followed threats and complaints from President Donald Trump, raising concerns that the agency may have buckled to political pressure.
Health experts and former FDA officials say Hahn’s performance tarnished the agency’s reputation at the moment it’s needed most: as agency scientists prepare to decide whether upcoming coronavirus vaccines are safe and effective to be given to millions of Americans. Public doubts about the vaccines could derail U.S. plans for a mass vaccination effort.
Wagner is a longtime government and military spokesman with strong ties to the Republican Party and Trump White House. He was appointed to the FDA in June.
He previously worked as a communications consultant for the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland, where he developed talking points and messaging, lined up surrogates for Trump and oversaw media engagements.
He was appointed in 2017 as deputy assistant secretary at the Department of Veterans Affairs, overseeing its public affairs operations and advising government officials on veterans issues. He helped develop the ChooseVA marketing program launched in 2018 that promoted the department’s services and benefits to veterans..
Wagner was one of several Trump loyalists appointed to the FDA over the summer.
Miller’s appointment in mid-August drew scrutiny because it brought an outspoken pro-Trump media strategist with little background in science into an influential FDA role usually reserved for a career professional.
During her few days as chief spokeswoman, she defended her credentials, sparred with some reporters on Twitter and pushed back against claims that the FDA’s convalescent plasma announcement was influenced by politics.
FDA communications adviser Michael Felberbaum stepped into the vacant role today on an acting basis, according to FDA’s statement.
Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., said in an interview today that the shakeup reveals internal chaos at the FDA at a critical moment. She questioned why Miller and Wagner were allowed to work in high-level roles in the first place, and said she was worried that political concerns are interfering with the scientific search for coronavirus vaccines and treatments.
“I think we’re in a danger zone and I think the red lights are blinking,” she said.
The House subcommittee on health that Eshoo chairs received a briefing from Hahn on Monday, where he was challenged on his misleading characterization of the convalescent plasma treatment’s benefits.
Eshoo said the error was “a sore spot” for Hahn and said he didn’t answer her directly on how it came about. She said she has invited him to testify at a public hearing in September but he hasn’t committed to appear.