News Brief: Trump Changes On Gun Policy, Opioids, USOC CEO Resigns
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
For the fourth time since taking office, President Trump will soon have to name a new communications director.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Yeah, the White House is confirming that Hope Hicks will step down from that job. She's held this position for 170 days. And she brought some stability after Anthony Scaramucci's infamous 10-day stint in the job. Hope Hicks has worked for Trump since early on in his campaign. And until recent weeks, she really managed to stay mostly out of the spotlight. So what does this departure now mean for the Trump White House?
MARTIN: Let's ask NPR's Domenico Montanaro, who joins us now for a rundown of White House happenings.
DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey there, Rachel.
MARTIN: Is it just a strange coincidence that Hope Hicks announced her resignation after she testified before the House Intelligence Committee about the Russia investigation?
MONTANARO: Oh, that is a good question. And first of all, what a day.
MONTANARO: You know, I feel like we say that every day. But no one saw this coming with Hope Hicks, you know. She's pretty close to this president. She's probably the last of the loyalists outside the family. The White House says she's, quote, "pursuing other opportunities" (laughter). She tells The New York Times that she has been planning leaving for months.
MONTANARO: And that's amazing considering she's only been in the job for months. And there have only been 13 months in the entire Trump presidency. And like you note, that timing is really suspicious.
MARTIN: Right. And she's a communications professional...
MARTIN: ...And would understand that people would make a connection.
MARTIN: So it's just odd.
MONTANARO: Touch of irony there. You know, as a communications director, you're supposed to, A, have a responsibility to keeping the American public informed. And she had said that sometimes she tells white lies for this president. And B, you're supposed to be acutely aware of optics and timing. That's the whole point of the job. And, you know, this is - you noted she's the fourth communications director. She's also the 50th White House staffer to leave - to resign or be fired in just a year.
MARTIN: Right. And she was really close to the president. So it's going to be interesting to see who he turns to, who is left who he can trust.
I want to turn now because while President Trump has lavished praise on Hope Hicks, he was not so kind to another one of the folks who have been with him since his campaign - talking about Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the president lambasting him on Twitter again.
MONTANARO: Absolutely. And he, you know, again sort of calling him out - doesn't like that Sessions has referred to the inspector general about FISA abuses. He wants lawyers at the Justice Department to take this up. It's almost like he's pressuring him to leave. Sessions is sort of refusing to do so. Behind closed doors reportedly, Trump called Sessions Mr. Magoo. And last night, Sessions was seen having dinner with Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, and the solicitor general, Noel Francisco, as sort of a - looks like a show of solidarity. And the problem here is - fire Sessions, and then what for Trump? And that's the problem that he's gotten himself into right now.
MARTIN: All of this unfolded - you note it was a big day - as President Trump was meeting with lawmakers about gun control. And it got uncomfortable because he started seeming to embrace positions that Republicans were like, what are you doing?
MONTANARO: You know, he outraged Republicans and confused pretty much everyone. You know, he dismissed a key Republican priority. He didn't seem to have a grasp of what the loyalties were in the room or what the past history of - the recent past history of gun control legislation. John Cornyn, the Republican Texas senator, afterwards said he thinks everyone was just trying to absorb what they just heard and that, you know, he could have a lot of influence if he didn't go for such a grab bag of ideas. We're left scratching our heads, too.
MARTIN: Right. But he said he'd support universal background checks. So we'll see if that actually happens.
Domenico Montanaro, thanks.
MONTANARO: You're welcome.
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MARTIN: All right, we're going to start this next segment with a number - 42,000. That's about how many Americans died from opioid overdoses in 2016. That's according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
GREENE: Yeah, just one of the statistics that point to the scale of this crisis. President Trump pointed out this crisis and this problem in October.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: More people are dying from drug overdoses today than from gun homicides and motor vehicles combined.
GREENE: And the president declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency. Well, we're four months on now. Not a whole lot has been done to curb the crisis, although maybe we're going to hear about next steps today because the White House is hosting an opioid summit.
MARTIN: Right. Noam Levey will be watching this. He covers health care for the Los Angeles Times, and he's with us.
NOAM LEVEY: Hi, there.
MARTIN: So last weekend, you actually moderated this discussion between governors and the new Health and Human Services secretary. What did you hear from those governors? Did they sound satisfied with the way the Trump administration is handling this?
LEVEY: I think they're hopeful. Secretary Azar proposed...
MARTIN: This is Alex Azar, the HHS secretary.
LEVEY: That's right. The HHS secretary promised a few steps to sort of make it a little bit easier for people to get treatment, which is really at the top of almost everybody's priority. And it's something that a lot of people have been waiting for the Trump administration to really do. We've heard a lot more about getting tough on drug dealers and trying to eliminate fentanyl, this very deadly, very dangerous synthetic opioid. But thus far, the Trump administration has spent a lot more time trying to take health insurance coverage away from tens of millions of Americans. And anybody who works on the front lines trying to get treatment to people suffering from addiction will tell you that that's pretty much the worst thing you can do.
So there's still a lot of people looking for more leadership from the Trump administration, frankly.
MARTIN: The president gave a speech last month in Ohio. And he sounded like he had some doubts about the advice that he is getting about opioids. Let's listen to this clip.
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TRUMP: I have a different take on it. My take is you have to get really, really tough - really mean with the drug pushers and the drug dealers.
MARTIN: What about that, Noam? You've reported on this epidemic a lot. Is that something that can work here, tougher policing?
LEVEY: Well, certainly there is, as I mentioned, a real concern about the import of this extremely dangerous synthetic opioid. And in some ways, fentanyl and the spread of fentanyl is obscuring some progress that is being made in states like Massachusetts, Ohio - places in Appalachia that are really, really trying to confront the epidemic. But again, law enforcement, while extremely important, is only a piece of the equation.
And the concern here is that the Trump administration is sort of late to the game - as the Obama administration, too, was, frankly - to realize that really what's needed here is a much more ambitious effort to broaden the availability of treatment for people who suffer from addiction so they can return to normal lives. And one of the things that's really hopeful here, I guess...
LEVEY: ...Is that treatment works.
MARTIN: Noam Levey - he covers health care for the Los Angeles Times.
Thanks so much for being with us this morning.
LEVEY: Nice to be with you.
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MARTIN: The CEO of the U.S. Olympic Committee has stepped down.
GREENE: Yes. Scott Blackmun was under a lot of pressure over his handling of the allegations against Dr. Larry Nassar. Nassar, of course, is the former USA Gymnastics team doctor who pleaded guilty to sexually abusing girls who were under his care. There are now a lot of questions about exactly what officials at the U.S. Olympic Committee knew and when they knew it. So a big question is, what changes might be coming to the organization?
MARTIN: All right, we've got NPR's Tom Goldman on the line. He's just back from covering the Olympics in South Korea.
Tom, why does Blackmun say that he is resigning?
TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Rachel, he is being treated for prostate cancer. And it's the reason being given for him resigning. But as you guys mentioned, he's under pressure for the Nassar scandal, also an even larger scandal, if you can imagine that, in the Olympic sport of swimming - scandals that didn't necessarily start under Scott Blackmun's watch, which began in 2010. But critics say, you know, just not enough done to stop them by him, by his organization. And even in the USOC statement announcing Blackmun's resignation due to health issues, it talks about the need to identify new leadership for the USOC at this critical point in its history.
MARTIN: So new leadership - anything broader than that? Any other changes the USOC is going to make in the wake of all these scandals?
GOLDMAN: You know, it announced some reforms and new actions as it called it today in this announcement talking about Blackmun's resignation, including more money and resources for support and counseling for athletes who've been victims of abuse, including Larry Nassar's victims. It wants to assess and put more money into the SafeSport program, which was set up to protect athletes but obviously hasn't in some cases.
Also - and this is key - these reforms call for a review of how the USOC and its national governing bodies work together. The USOC is supposed to oversee those NGBs and act when necessary. And this has been the big criticism of the USOC and Blackmun, that he created an environment with these NGBs under the USOC's umbrella - like USA Gymnastics, USA Swimming - and that they were working together to achieve Olympic glory, medals, money - above all else...
GOLDMAN: ...That the USOC neglected its responsibility as an overseer and a policeman, if necessary, of those NGBs and, as a result, failed to protect athletes.
MARTIN: So I understand there is this outside group of Olympians and others who have been pushing for changes for some time. How are these reforms going to go over with them?
GOLDMAN: Well, you know, if the reforms I just mentioned actually happen, this group would like that. But it wants more. It wants someone to take over the USOC who's not, in the committee's words, an insider who will say good things but then perpetuate this idea of organization first, athletes second. And the committee wants Congress to help implement basic structural changes in the Amateur Sports Act, which governs Olympic sport, to protect athletes from abuse...
GOLDMAN: ...And give them more rights.
MARTIN: NPR's Tom Goldman for us this morning.
Tom, thanks so much.
GOLDMAN: You're welcome, Rachel.
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