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Trump Holds Briefing On Opioid Crisis Amid Pleas To Declare National Emergency


The one item on President Trump's official schedule today was a briefing on the opioid crisis. Overdose deaths in the U.S. are happening at an alarming rate, and the president campaigned on a promise to reverse the problem. But today his Health and Human Services secretary said the Trump administration is still working to develop a strategy for combating opioid addiction. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith is here with us in the studio. Hi, Tam.


SHAPIRO: What did Trump and his team say today about plans for reducing the number of overdose deaths?

KEITH: Well, President Trump talked about what a big problem this is and that it's a priority for his administration.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Opioid overdose deaths have nearly quadrupled since 1999. It is a problem the likes of which we have not seen. Meanwhile, federal drug prosecutions have gone down in recent years. We're going to be bringing them up and bringing them up rapidly.

KEITH: What's interesting here is that in his remarks - and these were sort of off-the-cuff remarks before the briefing - he really put an emphasis on enforcement, on prosecutions. This is different from the tone that he struck during the campaign and earlier in his administration when he talked more about treatment and reducing stigma.

SHAPIRO: He also created a commission earlier this year to make recommendations for dealing with the crisis. How does what he said today fit in with the commission's recommendations?

KEITH: The commission released an interim report about 10 days ago. That report talked about steps that should be taken immediately to expand access to treatment, to slow the flow of synthetic fentanyl from China, increase the availability of the lifesaving rescue drug naloxone. But the top recommendation of the commission was that the president immediately declare a public health emergency to free up resources and raise the profile of the issue.

And Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, who was in the briefing today, was asked about that recommendation. And he said that those sorts of things - those emergency declarations are usually reserved for more short-term crises like the Zika virus.


TOM PRICE: We believe that - at this point that the resources that we need or the focus that we need to bring to bear to the opioid crisis at this point can be addressed without the declaration of an emergency, although all things are on the table for the president.

KEITH: Yeah. And the commission was talking about treatment whereas the president has been talking about enforcement. And Price said that the administration is still working on its own, separate from the commission, on developing a strategy and that he would have that - that they'd have that done in short order.

SHAPIRO: So the strategy is still a work in progress. Meanwhile, lawmakers, especially those from areas where people are dying in large numbers from overdoses, really want to see something done now. How are they responding?

KEITH: That's right. There is sort of widespread bipartisan agreement on some of the ways to help people. And there's a sense that they want action and not more studies and more conversation. I spoke with Maggie Hassan, who is a Democratic senator from the state of New Hampshire, which is one of these states that's been really hard-hit.

MAGGIE HASSAN: I am really concerned that the president doesn't seem to be taking to heart the recommendations of his own commission, that his administration continues to advocate for things that would undermine our efforts to combat this epidemic.

KEITH: And I talked to a GOP Senate aide from another one of these hard-hit states who said that the president's remarks struck him as a whole lot of nothing.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Thanks for joining us.

KEITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.