WASHINGTON — The whistleblower who was ousted as the head of a federal medical research agency charged Thursday that top Trump administration officials failed to heed his early warnings to stock up on masks and other supplies to combat the coronavirus, and that Americans died as a result.
“Lives were endangered, and I believe lives were lost,” Dr. Rick Bright, who was removed in April as the director of the Department of Health and Human Services’ Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, told a House subcommittee as he warned, “The window is closing to address this pandemic.”
Throughout nearly four hours of testimony, Bright told lawmakers that the outbreak would “get worse and be prolonged” if the United States did not swiftly develop a national testing strategy. He also predicted vaccine shortages if the administration did not draft a distribution plan now.
After holding back for nearly a month, President Donald Trump, his health secretary, Alex Azar, and his trade adviser, Peter Navarro, all hit back at Bright, in a three-pronged assault that elevated the confrontation. Trump dismissed Bright as a “disgruntled employee” and Navarro, who Bright considered an ally in the White House, called him a “deserter in the war on the China virus.” Azar insisted officials followed through on the scientist’s ideas.
“Everything he was complaining about was achieved,” Azar told reporters as he and Trump were preparing to board the presidential helicopter to leave for Allentown, Pennsylvania. “What he talked about was done. He said he talked about the need for respirators. We procured respirators at the president’s direction. He said we need a Manhattan Project on a vaccine. We had a Manhattan Project.
“This is like someone who was in choir trying to say he was a soloist back then,” Azar continued, adding: “His allegations do not hold water. They do not hold water.”
The president joined in. “I don’t know him,” Trump said. “I never met him. I don’t want to meet him, but I watched him, and he looks like an angry, disgruntled employee who, frankly, according to some people, didn’t do a very good job.”
Bright’s testimony was the first time a federal scientist — or any federal official — had gone before Congress and openly accused the administration of endangering American lives by bungling its coronavirus response. He said Americans would face “the darkest winter in modern history” if the administration did not move quickly, as people become “restless” to leave their homes.
That came two days after Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, contradicted Trump by warning of “needless suffering and death” if states reopened too quickly, amounting to a one-two punch for the administration.
Azar and Bright’s immediate supervisor at HHS, Robert Kadlec, declined invitations to testify, as did Navarro. Rep. Anna G. Eshoo, D-Calif., who led the hearing, said later in an interview that she did not intend to subpoena them.
“I don’t want to go down any legal rabbit holes,” Eshoo said, adding that she found Bright’s testimony “quite chilling.”
In an 89-page complaint filed with the Office of Special Counsel this month, Bright said he was reassigned to a narrower job at the National Institutes of Health as retaliation for his objections to the widespread distribution of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, malaria drugs that Trump was promoting as a treatment for COVID-19. He accused top officials of “cronyism” in awarding contracts — a charge HHS has strongly denied.
On Thursday, shortly before Bright took the witness stand, his lawyers disclosed that the Office of Special Counsel, which is investigating Bright’s complaint, had made a preliminary determination of a “substantial likelihood of wrongdoing” regarding the cronyism allegation and had asked Azar to investigate.
Last week, the special counsel found “reasonable grounds” that Bright had been retaliated against and requested that Azar reinstate him at the research agency for 45 days while the office investigated. HHS officials have not replied to either request, said Debra S. Katz, a lawyer for Bright.
But Azar suggested that Bright was being derelict in his refusal, so far, to take his new assignment at the NIH — a sentiment Navarro echoed in a brief interview Thursday night. HHS officials initially said Bright would lead a new “shark tank”-type effort to develop coronavirus therapeutics, but Azar said he was supposed to be helping with a crash effort to develop a coronavirus vaccine, called Operation Warp Speed.
“Oh, and by the way, whose job was it to actually lead the development of a vaccine? Dr. Bright’s,” a visibly angry Azar said. “So while we are launching Operation Warp Speed, he’s not showing up for work.”
Rep. Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla., echoed Azar. He hit Bright for taking a medical leave for hypertension as his complaint went public, then taking vacation time to rest, but having the strength to show for a hearing on Capitol Hill. The congressman noted that Bright’s job paid $285,000 a year.
“You’re too sick to come into work, but you’re well enough to come here?” Mullin said.
Bright told lawmakers he was testifying in his “personal capacity” and not as a government employee. He was calm and measured throughout, pushing back on Republicans who, at various points, also complained he had not shown up for his NIH job and suggested he should have brought his concerns to an inspector general (he said he did) instead of putting them in a whistleblower complaint.
Rep. Susan W. Brooks, R-Ind., reminded Bright that the Trump administration had engaged in pandemic planning and that he was a part of it.
“I can say that those plans have been in place,” he replied evenly. “It is disappointing that they were not put on the table with a strong leader indicating these are our plans, everyone falls in line and follow through with this plan.”
Such tension marked the hearing, as did a flash of profanity when Bright described his email exchanges with Mike Bowen, executive vice president of Prestige Ameritech, a Texas-based company that makes protective masks. Bowen, who has been warning for more than a decade that the U.S. was too dependent on masks from China, emailed Bright in January, warning of a shortage.
In quiet tones, Bright recounted the email: “We’re in deep shit. The world is, and we need to act.”
Bowen, who testified after Bright, confirmed the account and said the issue was not partisan. “It seemed like everybody who was beating up on Bright was a Republican and everybody who was defending him was a Democrat,” he said, adding: “I’m a Republican. I voted for President Trump.”
In addition to buying masks, Bright recommended that the federal government stock up on remdesivir, a drug that has since been shown to shorten hospital stays for COVID-19 and has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration as a treatment.
Bright also told the panel that he asked the Pentagon for a plane to bring in nasal swabs, which were in short supply and needed for coronavirus testing, from Italy. After Kadlec “rebuffed” him, he said he called Navarro, who got permission from Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper within hours.
As for a coronavirus vaccine, Bright said, the prediction that it would take 12 to 18 months might be overly optimistic. “There’s no one company that can produce enough for our country or the world,” he said. “It’s going to be limited supplies.”
Democrats painted Bright as a prescient man of courage. “It all adds up to one inescapable conclusion: It didn’t have to be this way,” said Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md. “Things are upside down. In you we have someone who made the right call in the early days, who has been removed from your position, when so many people who made the wrong call still have their jobs.”
Republicans, though, tried to discredit Bright, suggesting his performance was lacking. Rep. Richard Hudson, R-N.C., told Bright that Congress should examine “serious allegations that have been made against you,” without elaborating. He cited a Politico article that said his whistleblower complaint left out context and that his colleagues gave him “mixed” reviews.
Bright said he finally appealed to the public after he tried to put limits on the distribution of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Fla., told Bright he knew of a veteran who was “cured” by hydroxychloroquine. Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Ga., noted that Bright had shown initial enthusiasm for the drugs and pushed him on whether he “soured” on them because Trump was promoting them.
Bright said he was not opposed to testing the drugs but had safety concerns and wanted to wait for the results of clinical trials. He said he assented to the FDA’s “emergency use authorization” for chloroquine, which is unapproved in the U.S., because the FDA limited its use to hospital patients under close medical supervision.
“It had nothing to do with politics, sir,” he responded to Carter. “I wanted to make sure that Americans were aware of the risks of this drug.”