Old Trump health team rivalries resurface in Texas House race

2

A senior Trump health official’s bid to become the first administration alumnus elected to Congress is running into resistance from an unlikely source: his own former colleagues.

Brian Harrison, a chief of staff to former Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, has angered a swath of Trump White House and HHS political appointees with his “America First”-style campaign in the special election for a Dallas-area House seat, prompting complaints that he’s inflating his record and trying to co-opt Trump’s brand.

A first-time candidate who helped run a labradoodle-breeding family business prior to joining the Trump administration, Harrison has sought to break out of a crowded Republican field by casting himself as a key driver of Trump’s agenda, touting his role in the administration’s Covid vaccine development effort and taking credit for a series of anti-abortion and deregulatory policies.

But the 38-year-old’s claims have reignited rivalries that raged throughout much of the Trump years, putting Harrison at odds with former White House and health officials who viewed him more as a driver of internal conflicts that hampered Trump’s health care ambitions, according to nearly a dozen former administration officials.

The campaign has prompted one top Trump HHS official, Roger Severino, to endorse one of Harrison’s opponents, amid what three former officials described as frustration with Harrison running on the kinds of anti-abortion policies that Severino’s office worked on and struggled at times to convince department leaders to finalize.

Others have worked furiously behind the scenes to counter Harrison’s campaign, going as far as to urge Trump not to weigh in on Harrison’s behalf as the special election hits its stretch run.

“There are people close to the president reminding him not to endorse Brian Harrison,” a former White House official said. “There’s no MAGA candidate in that race.”

Harrison in an interview dismissed questions about his anti-abortion record and closeness to Trump as “laughable,” adding that he’s received broad support from former senior officials across the administration. That includes previously unreported campaign contributions from former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Small Business Administrator chief Linda McMahon, as well as tech billionaire and Trump ally Peter Thiel and megadonor Foster Friess.

Harrison said he’s raised more than $600,000 ahead of the May 1 election to fill the seat vacated by the late Rep. Ron Wright, who died in February after contracting coronavirus. It’s a sum he expressed confidence would help catapult him to the top of a 23-candidate field that includes 11 Republicans, including Wright’s widow, Susan Wright.

“I’m going to win this race, I do believe it,” Harrison said. “I’m going to be the next congressman from Texas.”

Within Texas’ 6th congressional district, Susan Wright is perhaps the best-known candidate and was an early favorite to emerge from a special election where the top two vote-getters — regardless of party — advance to a runoff if no one wins 50 percent. The traditionally Republican stronghold has trended toward toss-up territory in recent years, with Trump carrying the district by four points in 2020.

Yet Harrison has carved out a prominent lane as the unabashedly MAGA option, appearing regularly on Fox News to defend the Trump administration’s Covid response and criticize President Joe Biden over his handling of the migrant crisis at the southern border.

He’s flooded the airwaves with ads vowing to “make Washington as irrelevant” as possible to voters’ lives, and emphasized that he’s the only candidate with hands-on experience advancing the Trump agenda.

That Trump-branded platform is both critical to garnering attention during a truncated campaign season and a reflection of Harrison’s work over the last three years on behalf of the administration’s health agenda, culminating with the successful Covid vaccine push, multiple Harrison allies said.

Still, his candidacy has fueled a broader debate that’s raged among Trump alumni over who should get to carry the former president’s mantle into the post-Trump era — and what kind of qualifications they need.

A loyal aide to Azar, Harrison became a polarizing figure in parts of the Trump White House after months of battles over the direction of policy priorities such as Trump’s push to overhaul drug pricing — and later over decision-making around the pandemic response.

White House officials increasingly frustrated with HHS’ management of the early Covid response in April got to the point of discussing the firing of both Harrison and Azar. Though they never followed through, the hard feelings have lingered beyond Jan. 20, with several bristling now at the idea of Harrison carrying the Trump banner into Congress.

“It ticks off the entire Trump network,” said a former White House official. “The president would not be able to pick him out of a room.”

Harrison’s past tenure in the George W. Bush administration has contributed to the wariness among a Trump crowd closely monitoring the former president’s legacy. The fact that a recent fundraiser for Harrison was headlined by other Bush alumni — including Azar — did not go unnoticed, even though several had since gone on to serve in the Trump administration.

Most recently, some Harrison detractors have homed in on assertions that he played a central role in advancing the Trump administration’s anti-abortion agenda — lamenting months of back and forth between HHS and the White House in the administration’s final year over efforts to finalize a series of anti-abortion policies.

Those debates centered largely on Severino’s desire to more aggressively cite Democratic-led states for federal violations over abortion coverage mandates, eventually drawing in the White House, multiple people familiar with the situation said. Severino and other supporters of the policy in HHS and the White House privately blamed Harrison for failing to advance it more quickly, those people said.

Severino declined to comment. But in a sign of his ire, he has endorsed Susan Wright for the seat.

“I’ve been on the front lines advocating for life and religious liberty my entire career and know a fellow fighter when I see one,” he said in his endorsement.

Harrison defended his anti-abortion record, pointing to HHS’ success in cutting Planned Parenthood out of a federal family planning program and insisting that he’d made social issues a centerpiece of his time in the Trump administration.

“There was no more pro-life chief of staff in HHS history,” he said — a sentiment echoed by some other former senior health officials who are now supporting his run including Valerie Huber, who credited Harrison with helping steer the U.S.’ co-sponsorship of an international anti-abortion declaration.

Harrison has drawn fire from a separate swath of former health officials for running on his authorship of deregulatory moves that deepened divisions between HHS and health agencies under its umbrella, like the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Those policies — which included a pair of post-election regulations that imposed term limits on top government scientists and required reviews of all federal regulations — blindsided agency leaders and touched off widespread speculation that Harrison was laying the groundwork for a future political run.

In the weeks since, former officials who clashed with Harrison over his tenure have taken pains to note that the Biden administration is likely to wipe out all the rules he pushed through in the final months.

"Is there a dumber thing in the world than trying to put term limits on career scientists during a 100-year pandemic?" said Kyle McGowan, who served as chief of staff at the CDC. "And he did it at the 11th hour, knowing the Biden administration was going to strip it."

Harrison maintained that the effort was in the works well before the election, and solely aimed at laying the groundwork for an expansive deregulatory agenda in the second Trump term — calling the policies the “first of a five year project.”

He has since savored the blowback he received from his colleagues, listing it in campaign ads among the accomplishments “the swamp didn’t like.”

Still, the one former colleague’s approval that he has actively sought over the last several weeks remains elusive.

“Tracking the race,” said Jason Miller, a senior adviser to Trump. “Not yet determined if POTUS will endorse any candidate here.”

View original post