Trump vows to tackle opioid crisis
He blames Obama for not doing enough to stem drug surge
BRIDGEWATER, N.J. — President Donald Trump on Tuesday again promised to tackle the growing epidemic of opioid abuse in the United States after blaming his predecessor for not doing more to stem the surge of drug overdoses. But he offered no specific ideas for how he would do so.
Meeting with top advisers during his working vacation in New Jersey, Trump cited statistics saying that deaths stemming from opioid overdoses had skyrocketed in recent years and had become the leading cause of accidental death in the United States. He spoke generally about better health care and law enforcement action as well as guarding the southern border.
“It’s a tremendous problem in our country, and I hope we get it taken care of as well as it can be taken care of — hopefully better than any other country that also has these same problems,” he told reporters at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J. “Nobody is safe from this epidemic that threatens all — young and old, rich and poor, urban and rural communities. Everybody is threatened.”
He pointed to the administration of President Barack Obama.
“At the end of 2016, there were 23 percent fewer federal prosecutions than in 2011, so they looked at this surge and they let it go by,” he said. “We’re not letting it go by. The average sentence for a drug offender decreased 20 percent from 2009 to 2016. During my campaign, I promised to fight this battle because, as president of the United States, my greatest responsibility is to protect the American people and to ensure their safety, especially in some parts of our country. It is horrible.”
Trump did not use the occasion to declare a national opioid emergency, as his presidential commission on the epidemic recommended. The bipartisan panel, led by Gov. Chris Christie, R-N.J., concluded that about 142 Americans died every day from opioid use, meaning the death toll is “equal to September 11th every three weeks.”
The panel also called the emergency declaration its “first and most urgent recommendation,” one that could force more attention on the problem from Congress and from the public.
White House officials said the president and his team were still reviewing the commission’s interim report and would have more to say on the matter later.
But Democrats did not wait for Trump’s event in New Jersey to criticize him for failing to live up to his own promises to take action to stop the epidemic, accusing him of nothing more than “empty rhetoric.”
“Trump promised he’d come to the aid of communities ravaged by the opioid epidemic, but so far he’s done nothing for them,” Daniel Wessel, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, said in a statement. “In fact, Trump’s budget proposal and the Medicaid cuts he supported as part of the Republican health care repeal would both make this crisis even worse.”
Meeting with the president at the Trump National Golf Club were Tom Price, the secretary of health and human services, as well as a number of presidential aides, including John Kelly, the chief of staff; Jared Kushner, Trump’s sonin-law and senior adviser; Kellyanne Conway, the presidential counselor; Robert Porter, the White House staff secretary; and Richard Baum, the acting director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Melania Trump, the first lady, also attended.
Not present was Chuck Rosenberg, the acting director of the Drug Enforcement Administration, or anyone else from his agency, which has taken the lead in fighting the spread of opioids.
Rosenberg crossed the White House late last month when he sent an agencywide email saying the president had improperly “condoned police misconduct” by telling an audience of law enforcement officers not to “be too nice” to criminal suspects. He told his agents to show “respect and compassion” to those they encountered, including victims and defendants.
Aides have said Trump was joking, but they offered no explanation for Rosenberg’s absence from the opioid meeting, instead referring questions to the agency. Rosenberg is a close ally of James Comey, whom Trump fired as FBI director in May, and previously worked for Robert Mueller III, the special counsel investigating ties between Trump’s team and Russia.
Politicians, law enforcement and health care officials across the country are struggling to confront the surging crisis of addiction and death associated with opioids — painkillers such as Vicodin, Percocet and OxyContin as well as synthetic drugs imported from China like fentanyl.
An emergency declaration could help free federal money to fight the epidemic and force agencies to do more to confront it, said Dr. Andrew Kolodny, co-director of opioid policy research at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University.
He said more than 300,000 Americans had died from an opioid overdose since 1999 and that the problem was getting worse.
Separately Tuesday, the federal National Center for Health Statistics reported that deaths from drug overdoses rose sharply in the first nine months of 2016, confirming the widely held belief that the opioid epidemic worsened last year despite stepped-up efforts by public health authorities.
The center reported that overdose deaths reached a record 19.9 per 100,000 population in the third quarter, an increase over the 16.7 recorded for the same three months in 2015. Similarly, the first two quarters of last year showed death rates of 18.9 and 19.3, far greater than the corresponding periods for 2015. Data for the fourth quarter of 2016 are not yet available.
The government’s annual drug death statistics typically lag by about a year.
Trump’s briefing was the first event listed on the president’s public schedule since he started his “working vacation” on Friday. Trump has pushed back against any suggestion that he is taking a summer break, tweeting that he is holding meetings and making calls while renovations have vacated the West Wing.
President Donald Trump speaks during a briefing on the opioid crisis Tuesday at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J.