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Trump Still Hasn't Fulfilled Promise To Declare Opioid Epidemic As A National Emergency


President Trump's nominee to be the nation's drug czar withdrew today, the ending to a story that started just two days ago. The Washington Post and "60 Minutes" reported that the nominee, Republican Congressman Tom Marino, had pushed legislation that weakened the government's ability to fight the opioid crisis. Trump talked to FOX News Radio this morning.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: And Tom Marino said, look; I'll take a pass. I have no choice. I really will take a pass. I want to do it. And he was very gracious. I have to say that.

MCEVERS: NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith has this update on the Trump administration's efforts to deal with the opioid crisis.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: According to the latest numbers, nearly 150 Americans are dying each day from drug overdoses, the majority of those from heroin, fentanyl, and other opioids. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is chairman of a commission President Trump created to study the opioid epidemic.


CHRIS CHRISTIE: My guess is that we're going to see deaths go up the next couple years rather than go down. I think we're on the wrong side of the curve here.

KEITH: On July 31, the commission issued an interim report, including a recommendation it described as urgent that the president declare a national emergency. Nearly two weeks later, Trump was asked about it.


TRUMP: The opioid crisis is an emergency, and I'm saying officially right now, it is an emergency. It's a national emergency. We're going to spend a lot of time, a lot of effort and a lot of money on the opioid crisis.

KEITH: But it's not as simple as just saying it. And in the more than two months since Trump made that pronouncement, no emergency declaration has been signed. Yesterday, though, he said it really is happening next week.


TRUMP: It's a very important step, and to get to that step, a lot of work has to be done. And it's time-consuming work. We're going to be doing it next week.

KEITH: Sometimes a week or two weeks promised by Trump turns out to be longer or never. Speaking earlier this month in New Jersey, Christie said he wished the White House had moved more quickly.


CHRISTIE: I think the problem is too big to say that if he had declared an emergency two months ago, that it would make a significant difference in two months. But I would also say you can't get those two months back. And so it's not good that it hasn't been done yet.

KEITH: Senators from both parties say they aren't entirely clear on how the emergency declaration will work and just how helpful it will be. But Jessica Hulsey Nickel, president of the Addiction Policy Forum, is confident it will happen and that it will help.

JESSICA HULSEY NICKEL: Things like removing red tape for treatment access for Americans, for our patients that need access to treatment for addiction, more treatment care, more resources for substance abuse treatment and recovery support services - these things can be - carved a pathway to get them out to communities after the state of emergency is declared.

KEITH: Drug czar nominee Marino's withdrawal leaves three key positions in the administration that should be dealing with the opioid crisis without nominees. In addition to the drug czar, there is no nominee yet for HHS secretary or to run the Drug Enforcement Administration.

MAGGIE HASSAN: It really is inexcusable.

KEITH: Senator Maggie Hassan is a Democrat from New Hampshire, and she's bothered by the lack of nominees.

HASSAN: It really reflects a lack of commitment. And I'm very, very concerned about it. We need to be working together because lives are at stake, and we are losing lives every day to this epidemic.

KEITH: The White House insists that work is underway across the federal government even if it isn't making headlines. And President Trump said today he is, quote, "more than close" to naming an HHS secretary. Tamara Keith, NPR News. 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.