(CNN) — White House officials are discussing plans to replace Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar following a spate of criticism over the early federal response to the coronavirus, a senior administration official confirmed.
Any move to replace Azar would be contingent on President Donald Trump deciding to move forward, and there is currently little appetite inside the White House for a big shake up amid the coronavirus pandemic. The official stressed that nothing is imminent, but there are discussions underway at the White House about replacing Azar.
The discussions come after Trump appointed Vice President Mike Pence, rather than Azar, as the White House’s point man for coronavirus response at a rare presidential news conference. Trump had privately expressed frustration over Azar’s lack of communication on key issues as the head of the White House coronavirus task force.
Azar has also been at odds with Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma, an ally of Pence’s from Indiana who has been involved in the coronavirus task force briefings.
As the coronavirus spreads across the nation, the Trump administration has been criticized for its handling of the pandemic, namely by governors, on both sides of the aisle, in desperate need of critical supplies for their states as the President has moved forward on indicating that many states can reopen by May 1.
More than 97% of the US population is currently under a stay-at-home or shelter-in-place order as the coronavirus continues to upend life and the US economy. As of Saturday, more than 50,000 Americans have died from the virus and the number of cases is nearing the 1,000,000 mark.
In a statement Saturday night, deputy White House secretary Judd Deere said, “The Department of Health and Human Services, under the leadership of Secretary Azar, continues to lead on a number of the President’s priorities. Any speculation about personnel is irresponsible and a distraction from our whole-of-government response to COVID-19.”
“Secretary Azar is busy responding to a global, public health crisis and doesn’t have time for palace intrigue,” HHS spokeswoman Caitlin Oakley said in response to the reports.
As secretary, Azar has overseen several top administration priorities, including efforts to weaken the Affordable Care Act, combat the opioid crisis and reduce the cost of prescription drugs.
Azar, who joined the Trump administration in January 2018, served as general counsel and deputy secretary of the agency under former President George W. Bush. He then joined Eli Lilly, becoming president of Lilly USA in 2012. He spent nearly nine years at the company, during which time it and other drug makers greatly hiked prices.
He was appointed Health and Human Services secretary after his predecessor Tom Price resigned over his use of private planes for government business trips.
An economist and lawyer by training, Azar clerked for Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in the early 1990s and later worked under Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel on the Clinton Whitewater investigation who defended Trump during his impeachment trial.
This story has been updated with additional developments.
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