In the 14 months that have elapsed since Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, Kellyanne Conway has slowly transitioned from one of the administration's most visible public faces to a new role as its token "BREAK GLASS IN CASE OF EMERGENCY" person, who is released from the West Wing storage closet in which she presumably sits only when the White House needs one of her patented inane talking-head interviews to divert attention from its latest humiliating scandal. Unfortunately, it turns out that instead of disappearing from public life altogether, Conway has busied herself in recent months with the task of running the government's response to the opioid epidemic—a public health emergency that kills 175 Americans every day—into the goddamn ground. From Politico:
White House counselor Kellyanne Conway has taken control of the opioids agenda, quietly freezing out drug policy professionals and relying instead on political staff to address a lethal crisis claiming about 175 lives a day. The main response so far has been to call for a border wall and to promise a "just say no” campaign.
The Office of National Drug Control Policy has been without a permanent director since the president's first nominee for that position, Pennsylvania congressman Tom Marino, withdrew from consideration in light of history of zealous advocacy for legislation friendly to narcotics manufacturers. As a result, the ONDCP was briefly led by a 24-year-old former campaign staffer who lied on his résumé about the length of time he served as vice president of his college fraternity—a distinction that makes him the least-qualified person to hold a White House job who did not marry one of the president's children.
Conway, for some reason, has stepped into this void, steering the administration's opioid response strategy with the help of a "skeleton crew" of political appointees who possess no relevant experience.
The office’s acting director, Rich Baum, who had served in the office for decades before Trump tapped him as the temporary leader, has not been invited to Conway’s opioid cabinet meetings, according to his close associates. His schedule, obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request, included no mention of the meetings. Two political appointees from Baum’s office, neither of whom are drug policy experts, attend on the office’s behalf, alongside officials from across the federal government, from HHS to Defense.
Politico goes on to quote lawmakers who are baffled by this inexplicable exclusion of subject-matter experts, and who still have no idea which members of the executive branch to work with on proposals for addressing what the president has called one of his top priorities. Most disturbingly, the White House is signaling an intent to fold its opioid response strategy into its arguments for the construction of a border wall, conflating the very real problem of the domestic over-prescription of painkillers with its time-honored "scary drugs pouring are into our country from Mexico" dog-whistle rhetoric.
In response to the Trump administration's habit of failing to execute its basic responsibilities, an often-repeated reassurance is that there are limits to the impact that any single president can have on the government. Much of the day-to-day work of running a country is entrusted to civil servants and subject-matter experts who, while attuned to political realities, are nonetheless insulated from them to a certain extent. When Trump decides to announce sweeping changes to federal policy on Twitter, we count on those people to do what's best for the country and politely ignore him. If they are quietly being marginalized in favor of stooges like Conway, however, it's hard to see how one of this country's most pressing and tragic and preventable problems gets better anytime soon.