Second Trump appointee out at FDA amid credibility concerns

Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Stephen Hahn, testifies before a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 30, 2020. (Kevin Dietsch/Pool via AP)
Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Stephen Hahn, testifies before a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 30, 2020. (Kevin Dietsch/Pool via AP) (UPI)

WASHINGTON – A second Trump administration appointee has been ousted at the Food and Drug Administration in the wake of the agency's botched announcement about an experimental therapy for COVID-19, which medical experts said damaged the health regulator's credibility with the public.

An FDA spokesperson confirmed Wednesday that John “Wolf” Wagner, a political appointee installed by the White House earlier this summer, is no longer heading the agency’s office of external affairs. Instead, Heidi Rebello, a longtime FDA career official, has stepped into the position on an acting basis, overseeing all FDA public communications. Politico first reported the news.

A spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services said Wagner would take on a new communications position in the department's office of emergency preparedness and response.

The shakeup comes just five days after conservative communications specialist Emily Miller was removed from her post heading the agency’s press office. Miller served just 11 days on the job and helped coordinate the agency’s announcement that it had allowed the emergency use of convalescent plasma for COVID-19 patients.

That announcement triggered a backlash last week after FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn was forced to correct misstatements that inflated the potential benefits of the therapy. The FDA's decision to authorize the treatment also followed threats and complaints from President Donald Trump, raising concerns that the agency may have buckled to political pressure.

Health experts and former FDA officials say Hahn's performance tarnished the agency’s reputation at the moment it’s needed most: as agency scientists prepare to decide whether upcoming coronavirus vaccines are safe and effective to be given to millions of Americans. Public doubts about the vaccines could derail U.S. plans for a mass vaccination effort.

Wagner is a longtime government and military spokesman with strong ties to the Republican Party and Trump White House. He was appointed to the FDA in June.

He previously worked as a communications consultant for the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland, where he developed talking points and messaging, lined up surrogates for Trump and oversaw media engagements.