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Ousted Federal Vaccine Chief Testifies In Whistleblower Hearing. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired May 14, 2020 - 10:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


JIM SCIUTTO, CNN NEWSROOM: Based on his opening testimony.

[10:00:00]

He will warn of, quote, the darkest winter in modern history if the administration does not ramp up its response to the coronavirus outbreak.

President Trump already on the attack this morning. He has called Dr. Bright a so-called whistleblower, a disgruntled employee. Dr. Bright claims he was fired simply for clashing with top senior administration officials in particular for opposing the use of an anti-malarial drug touted by the president as a treatment for coronavirus, the one, unproven one.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN NEWSROOM: All this as President Trump increasingly is frustrated with the nation's top infectious disease doctor, and he is taking that frustration public now, very publicly criticizing Dr. Fauci. We'll have more on that in a moment. Our John Harwood is at the White House.

Let's begin though this hour with Manu Raju on Capitol Hill. Tell us what we already know in terms of the remarks that Dr. Bright will make here at the open.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, we know that he's going to detail what was involved in a whistleblower complaint that he made alleging retaliation after he raised concerns about that drug that was touted by the president as a potential vaccine, removing him from a key post overseeing the development of such countermeasures, and also raising concerns that the United States is just not prepared and was not prepared initially at the onset of this crisis.

Now, we have also just obtained a letter that was sent to the committee that came from the Office of Special Counsel, which actually is reviewing this whistleblower complaint. And according to this letter, it says that the office has found a, quote, substantial likelihood of wrongdoing based on the information that was submitted and those allegations.

Now, it says they have not made a final determination about those allegations, but is asking the Health and Human Services Department to conduct a review, its own review investigation, then turn over a report within 60 days to determine whether or not these allegations are credible.

So expect some discussion about this development. Expect a lot of questions about these serious allegations that he's raising, and expect Republicans to defend the president through all of this as well, so this will be a fiery hearing with this new development this morning that the special -- Office of the Special Counsel, which is reviewing this complaint saying that it has found a, quote, substantial likelihood of wrongdoing. Expect that to be discussed at length here in this hearing in a matter of moments, guys.

SCIUTTO: John Harwood, the president on the attack against Dr. Bright in advance of his testimony, using a charge he's used frequently before of critics of the president, the administration. He said he's disgruntled, calls it a so-called whistleblower complaint. What's behind this?

JOHN HARWOOD, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: He also says, Jim, nobody liked him, nobody respected him. This is the caliber of insult the president uses. Look, he is trying to discredit the idea, which overlaps with the way he has tried to discredit Anthony FaucI's recommendations, that he's been behind the curve on this, that he was touting a false hope with hydroxychloroquine, which studies have increasingly suggested, not proven, but suggested was a false hope.

And Rick Bright was sort of dramatizing in much more stark language than Anthony Fauci would use that complaint, the idea that the president is turning past public health authorities and looking for -- at other considerations, political considerations, economic considerations to override public health considerations, and that's something that's, so far, the American public has sided with Fauci and the public health over the president.

You see in our surveys that the vast majority of people do not trust the president on this score (ph). They do trust Fauci. There are partisan splits there. Republicans have a different view. But in the main, this is something that the president is on the short side of.

HARLOW: John Harwood, thanks.

Manu, let's listen in as this hearing gets underway.

REP. ANNA ESHOO (D-CA): Pardon me? I already recognized myself but I'll recognize you afterward.

I never thought I would be holding, or that we would be holding a hearing under these sad circumstances, but I think it's a necessary one. Our country is in pain. Americans are afraid, they're sick, they're hungry and jobless. And over 80,000 souls have been lost. And the government that was supposed to protect them has failed.

There are heroes, and they have risen. Extraordinary, ordinary Americans showing courage, compassion and a sense of self-sacrifice and duty beyond what could have or should have been asked of them.

[10:05:00]

Regular Americans have risen when their leaders have not.

We are the greatest country on Earth and yet we have the most cases and the most deaths from COVID-19 of any nation in the world. Why? First is the inept, ineffective and extremely late effort to respond to what was clear to many scientists and public health experts in January. That basic delay cost precious lives and is continuing to cost lives. We can't have a system where the price paid is unconscionable. Mothers losing daughters, daughters losing fathers because of incompetence, denial, delay and a disorganized response.

Frankly, I'm tired of those who bear the responsibility accepting none of it while deflecting blame on others. The previous administration, the World Health Organization, the Wuhan lab, anywhere but where the blame belongs.

Second, the United States has and remains dangerously dependent on foreign countries for our supply of critical life-saving drugs and life-saving equipment, masks, gloves, PPE and ventilators. As a result, we can't treat our own people without relying on China and others to supply us. We can't outfit our first responders, our hospital workers, our nurses, our doctors. We can't care for our own nation in crisis. This surely is a national security issue.

I want to thank the gentlewoman from Indiana, Ms. Brooks, for her bipartisan work with me to address the drug supply chain issue as well as other members on a bipartisan basis for their legislation on those issues as well.

Today, we're going to hear about the disastrous federal response to an approaching pandemic. Dr. Bright has filed one of the most specific and troubling whistleblower complaints I've ever seen. He was the right person with the right judgment at the right time. He was not only ignored. He was fired for being right. We can't have a system where the government fires those who get it right and reward those who get it completely wrong.

Mr. Michael Bowen, the Executive Vice President of Prestige Ameritech, will speak to America's crippling dependents on foreign countries for critical medical supplies, a public health issue and a national security issue.

Our country is paying a terrible price today and it rests on Congress to address this threat where any effort of an adversary can cut off our supply of life-saving drugs and supplies, our lifeline. And this would create a healthcare disaster on a scale never experienced before. I bear this responsibility as does every member of Congress.

This subcommittee has jurisdiction over our country's most prestigious healthcare institutions, FDA, NIH, CDC and BARDA. We have to listen, we have to learn and we must work together for the people of our country who need us so, so much regardless of inconvenient truths.

Finally, I regret that Secretary Azar, Dr. Robert Kadlec and Dr. Peter Navarro have all refused to testify today.

I now ask for a moment of silence in honor of the over 80,000 Americans who have lost their lives from COVID-19.

The chair now recognizes --

REP. MICHAEL BURGESS (R-TX): Before I'm recognized for an opening statement, I wonder if I might be recognized for a parliamentary inquiry.

ESHOO: The gentleman is recognized. State his parliamentary inquiry.

BURGRESS: Madam Chair, just the inquiry is, I would like clarification with this before us today, is this witness testifying as a government witness or as an individual?

[10:10:00]

ESHOO: Dr. Bright is testifying as a federal employee. Correct? And representing -- he is a federal employee representing himself.

I now recognize the ranking member of the subcommittee --

REP. GREG WALDEN (R-OR): Madam Chair, just a question. Normally, we have name plates identifying who is at the table. And just -- I know Dr. Bright, of course, but I'm not sure who is next to him.

ESHOO: You're correct. I don't know why we don't have name plates. I didn't notice that when I came into the hearing room. Can the staff provide them? Is there any way the staff can provide them?

I think we can.

I also would like to inform the members that Dr. Bright's attorney, Debra Katz, is at the table. She's requested a microphone. She is not here as a witness, so we will not be asking her questions. She is simply here to -- representing her client.

I now would like to recognize the ranking member of the subcommittee, Dr. Burgess, for his five minutes of an opening statement.

BURGRESS: I thank the chair and inter-chain commerce (ph), particularly the subcommittee on health is the premier health subcommittee in the Congress. We have a broad jurisdiction, a longstanding tradition of tackling important healthcare issues in a bipartisan manner.

I personally, like our witness today, have been very, very concerned and, in fact, sounding the alarm about this novel coronavirus since January.

So I ask, why is this the first official hearing that we're having on this topic? To say this is a disappointment would be an understatement. But not only disappointment, but quite frankly, I'm concerned it took five months to have a hearing on this novel coronavirus instead of tackling any of the issues suggested in the letters that I've sent to you this week, we are examining a whistleblower complaint that is only a week old for a proper investigation. In these letters, I outlined the importance of addressing the Strategic National Stockpile, COVID-19's impact on mental health, testing, certainly, we should have hearing on testing, racial disparities and provide a relief. The lack of attention to these details is detrimental to our nation's overall response to this pandemic and it is a responsibility of this House and responsibility of this committee, we continue to stand on the sidelines instead of becoming fully engaged.

Every whistleblower deserves to be heard. Dr. Bright has raised serious allegations, and they deserve investigation. Whistleblowers must have their rights protected and deserve to have their allegations investigated with policies and procedures that have been long established and upheld as independent and fair.

Madam chair, on April 23rd, CNN reported that you planned to call Dr. Bright to testify. Dr. Bright did not actually file his whistleblower complaint with the Office of Special Counsel until Tuesday, May 5th. That same day it was announced on social media that you planned to hold a hearing but it was not officially noticed until two days later.

By Friday, May 8th, the Office of Special Counsel recommended that Dr. Bright be temporarily reinstated as director of BARDA so that it could thoroughly conduct its investigation and move forward with its usual processes of reviewing a whistleblower complaint.

Despite the hearing memo, no final determination of a violation of a whistleblower statute actually has been made. Following a robust investigation process, the customary setting for a whistleblower hearing would be in our Energy and Commerce Committee under oath in the Offices of Oversight and Investigation Subcommittee. To say this hearing is premature, and it is a disservice to the investigations of Dr. Bright's complaint, I think, goes without saying.

You trampled on minority rights. You would never have tolerated that when you were in the minority. You neglected the tradition of this committee and in the manner this hearing was called. The number of procedural fouls committed in advance of this hearing would certainly have led the chair to have fouled out of multiple basketball games. Apparently, in a world without sports, this subcommittee has become political sport.

More than 80,000 American lives have been lost to this pandemic. It continues to wreak havoc on our communities, not only in terms of physical health, but mental health, and certainly financial health.

[10:15:03]

We should be conducting a hearing on the real-time implementation of the Pandemic All Hazard Preparedness in Advancing Innovation Act, and we should have done it in February. As a Democratic counterpart to the primary author, Dr. Susan Brooks on this legislation, you, Madam chair, should have great interest in holding such a hearing.

In my district, we've seen deaths amongst young African-Americans from COVID-19. We're hearing about a new phenomenon of very young individuals who are dying from an intense inflammatory response apparently sparked by infection with this virus. Well, we should hear from some of these families and medical professionals to analyze why this virus has disproportionately affected some communities, particularly minority communities.

So I said it before, not all heroes wear capes. Hospitals, doctors, and other healthcare providers are on the frontlines every single day battling this virus. They go to work so we can stay at home, which we've done very successfully. The inability to conduct non-essential procedures and visits has led to financial harm to our hospitals, and doctors, how are states and the country preparing ease back into providing medical care. Is the distribution of the Provider Relief Fund and CARES Act working? These are the questions we should be asking the experts today.

I appreciate Chairman Pallone's willingness to hold telephone briefings since we all have our own questions, but let me just say, this pandemic is about the public health of our nation. And thank you for your commitment to hold future hearings on the Strategic National Stockpile, mental health and racial disparities. I'm happy to help you set the agenda for the rest of the year. I hope you will commit to additional hearings on testing and the Provider Relief Fund. And I request that my letters and your response will be part of the record.

I yield back.

ESHOO: The gentleman yields back. I think the gentleman will recall that I called for a hearing on January 30th. And on the heels of that, it was to be with Dr. Kadlec, Dr. Fauci, all the heads of our health agencies, and it was Secretary Azar that said they cannot come. I'm the top person, and when I come, they will come with me. So that was January 30th.

I want to -- I'm not finished yet. I'm not finished yet. I'm not finished yet, Dr. Burgess. You've written several letters to me in the last week, and I communicated to you, I'm happy to sit down with you to review and to come up with all the appropriate hearings that this subcommittee should hold. And we will work together on that. We have a lot of work to do.

You're absolutely right, a stockpile, testing, the list is as long as Pennsylvania Avenue. So we will work together on that, rest assured.

Now, I'd like to recognize the chairman of the full committee, Mr. Pallone, for his five minutes for opening statement.

REP. FRANK PALLONE (D-NJ): Thank you, Madam Chair, and thank you, Ms. Eshoo, for initiating this hearing and putting all your energy into it so that we're here today with Dr. Bright.

We are here as part of the Energy and Commerce Committee's ongoing work to confront the largest public health and economic crisis of our lifetimes. It has been mentioned more than 80,000 Americans have lost their lives while more than 36 million others have lost their jobs as of today. This is a national emergency that requires every aspect of government to work together to reduce the spread of this terrible virus so we can confidently begin to reopen our economy.

And while this Congress and the president have worked together to enact four laws to combat the pandemic and provide economic assistance to the American people, new laws are simply not enough. President Trump and his administration have failed to provide the consistent and stable leadership that is necessary to guide our nation through this public health and economic crisis.

For months, the president has delivered mixed messages and misinformation to the American people, creating confusion across the nation. Instead of showing leadership, competence and vision in a time of crisis, the administration has abdicated its responsibility and forced states to fend for themselves and find their own way out of this pandemic.

And while states and frontline healthcare workers were pleading for personal protective equipment, testing supplies and other resources to protect them and their patients, President Trump's response was to let states fight it out on the open market.

[10:20:01]

For months, the president has refused to develop and implement a national testing program. For months, we've been promised millions of tests were right around the corner. The promises have been hollow. Testing is getting better but nowhere near what it needs to be. It doesn't help that the president proclaimed about testing earlier this week, and I quote, we have met the moment and we have prevailed. That could not be further from the truth, Mr. President.

Dr. Rick Bright, the former Director of BARDA, has come forward as a whistleblower and made serious allegations, including a lack of urgency by administration officials to respond to the virus, mismanagement and failure to procure necessary supplies and disregard for public health and scientific integrity.

His claims lie at the heart of this committee's concerns regarding the administration's response to the COVID-19 pandemic. We're here today to hear the perspective of Dr. Bright who is positioned to discuss the administration's preparations in response to this pandemic.

Now, the failures we've seen simply cannot persist. That's why the Energy and Commerce Committee continues to conduct robust oversight and to propose bold legislative solutions. We've been demanding answers and information from the administration on testing, contact tracing, the supply chain, food safety and the safety of food production workers and the attempts to undermine science and public health. To date we have yet to receive any sufficient responses from the Trump administration.

As for legislation, Congress has already passed four major coronavirus response packages that were improved by the work of this committee. And now, with a sense of urgency, this moment requires early this week, we propose the Heroes Act, which is to be voted on tomorrow by the full House. The Heroes Act continues our ongoing commitment to providing the healthcare resources and support needed to combat the coronavirus crisis. Our legislation will strengthen testing and contract tracing by finally requiring the administration to develop comprehensive plans with clear benchmarks and timelines and public reporting of key metrics. This will allow transparency so we can see if the Trump administration is fulfilling their promises and hold them accountable if they're not.

We also provide $70 billion to support robust testing, contact tracing, surveillance and containment activities. This is beyond the 25 that was in the last bill. And we simply cannot beat this virus without these efforts in place.

Our legislation also ensures that all COVID-19 treatments, drug and vaccines are free, of course, for patients. The bill will help shore up our public infrastructure for the long road ahead.

Our top priority is the health and safety of the American people. The Heroes Act builds on the progress we have made and lays the foundation we will need to ease social distancing and safely reopen the economy.

So I just want to thank Dr. Bright for coming forward and for being here today. I want to thank you, Madam Chair, for bringing him here. And I'm hopeful that this hearing will help us better understand the failures of the Trump administration so that, collectively, we can find solutions that will help us finally get a handle on this virus. It's the only way we'll be able to protect the American people and safely and confidently reopen our communities.

And I thank you, Madam Chair, and yield back.

ESHOO: The gentleman yields back. It's a pleasure to recognize the gentleman from Oregon, the ranking member of the full committee, Mr. Walden.

WALDEN: Thank you, Madam Chair. And before I use my time, I do have just a parliamentary question for you if you would yield to that, Madam Chair, yes.

ESHOO: You can state your parliamentary question.

WALDEN: I know we're operating under really unusual conditions because of the masks and everything else, which also affects the layout of the room. I know when we do oversight and investigation hearings, and I know that's not what we're doing here, there is a script about whether an individual is accompanied by counsel, whether they want that counsel represented. I've got that script.

The reason I'm asking is we're not in O and I, but it is extraordinarily unusual to have a government witness as an individual with private counsel at the witness table and with a microphone. And so I'm just trying to get clarification for future precedent-setting for the committee, and that's the only reason I'm asking this. He obviously has counsel.

If we should follow the protocol that is prescribed for the Oversight Investigations Committee in similar circumstances.

ESHOO: Well, I think this is the first time that -- it is.

WALDEN: That's why I asked.

ESHOO: We have another first here. When Dr. Bright came in this morning with his attorney, she requested a microphone. And so as a courtesy, I extended the microphone to her.

WALDEN: Yes, sure.

ESHOO: Now, she's not a witness. She will not -- we are not going to ask her questions.

[10:25:02]

She's simply accompanying her client. So I don't -- is it a problem?

WALDEN: I don't have objection to any of that, it's just that -- can I read you what this text is and maybe that resolved it?

ESHOO: Well, this isn't O and I. This is -- are you suggesting that we need to follow what O and I does?

WALDEN: This witness is not here in his whistleblower capacity is what I'm told, it's what I indicated. But this is his personal attorney, if I understand correctly, but we still don't even know for sure -- I know who you are but we haven't identified that for the record.

And all we do in O and I, as you know, is you ask if the witness wants to be accompanied by counsel, they respond yes or no, and then counsel is allowed to move forward, sit at the table, and then the question is asked, will you give testimony or not, and if so, raise your hand and do all these things. That's all I'm doing here, is just -- we don't usually do this type of activity in the other policy committees, and we're not usually set up this way. But because of the pandemic, we are.

ESHOO: So should I ask the --

WALDEN: I just think we ought to follow that for future precedent issues. Nothing to do with this hearing, but future precedent is what we're dealing with.

ESHOO: It's a good suggestion.

WALDEN: We're all learning how to operate in this environment.

ESHOO: Exactly. All right, the gentleman is recognized for five minutes for an opening statement. You don't think it's resolved?

WALDEN: Well, are we going to ask if he wants to be represented by counsel and then who the counsel is?

ESHOO: Dr. Bright, do you wish to be represented by counsel? DR. RICK BRIGHT, FORMER DIRECTOR, BARDA: Yes.

WALDEN: Okay. And then can she identify herself for the record?

ESHOO: And for the record, would counsel please state your name?

DEBRA KATZ, ATTORNEY FOR DR. RICK BRIGHT: My name is Debra Katz. I'm an attorney representing Dr. Rick Bright at the law firm of Katz, Marshall and Banks.

ESHOO: Thank you.

WALDEN: I think that's all we needed to do.

REP. LARRY BUCHSON (R-IN): Madam Chairwoman?

ESHOO: The gentleman is recognized for his five minutes.

WALDEN: Well, if you've got a parliamentary question.

ESHOO: Will the gentleman state his parliamentary?

BUCHSON: Yes. Will the witness be under oath, because if you have a whistleblower testimony under O and I, a witness would normally be under oath? And if not today, he's not under oath, then if we get into whistleblower allegations, how can we be sure that the witness is telling the truth under oath if they're not under oath? And if they're not under oath, then How can you talk about the whistleblower complaints in a fair and equitable manner?

ESHOO: I thank the gentleman for his inquiry. All witnesses know that it is illegal to lie to Congress. And in our subcommittee, unlike O and I, they are the only subcommittee that -- I mean, it's a practice. It's a tradition. But we don't swear people in. But witnesses know that it is illegal to lie to Congress.

WALDEN: USC 1003 or something, I believe.

BUCHSON: Thank you.

ESHOO: The gentleman is recognized for his five minutes opening statement.

WALDEN: Well, thank you, Madam Chair. And I know we're operating under unique circumstances.

So the world is coping with a historic deadly pandemic that we always knew was possible but we prayed would not happen. In a bipartisan way, we did everything the experts said we needed to do to be prepared should a pandemic or other hazards strike.

Madam Chair, the work you, Dr. Burgress, Representative Susan Brooks and I and others did over two congresses, when each party has controlled the House, resulted in one product, the Pandemic All Hazards Preparedness Act. Dr. Bright, I know you were part of our efforts in writing and reauthorizing that law, and we thank you for your work. In fact, given the role you once played at ASPR before going to BARDA, you had a big responsibility to make sure Congress provided the Strategic Stockpile that it needed or to inform us if there were shortcomings, especially as we were modernizing the Pandemic All Hazards Preparedness Act.

And we're back over three hearings we held in the Oversight Investigation Subcommittee of this committee where you testified regarding the Zika outbreak on May 23rd, 2017, the seasonal flu on March 8th, 2018 and the hearing on June 15th, 2018, entitled the state of U.S. public bio preparedness responding to biological attacks, pandemics and emerging infectious disease outbreaks.

You see, I wanted to make sure we hadn't missed anything. Nothing jumped out at me as I reread the records. Congress dramatically increased funding to ASPR and BARDA. We granted new authorities.

[10:30:00]

We followed your recommendations and those of others who played a key role in this combined effort.

Unfortunately, some of the systems we put in place to prepare for a pandemic.

END