President Donald Trump made a surprise stop by the White House's summit on opioids today, where he suggested dealers face "the ultimate penalty" for their roles in drug-related deaths.
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The summit came more than four months after Trump declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency, though the decision faced criticism as it stopped short of a national emergency declaration that would have made an additional surge of federal funds available to address treatment and recovery efforts.
First lady Melania Trump delivered opening remarks at the summit, remarking on her travels in recent months with the president across the country, in which she visited hospitals and treatment centers, where she's been briefed by those directly impacted by the crisis.
Addressing the crowd of more than 200 participants from across the nation, the first lady read a letter sent to her from a mother who lost her son in an opioid-related death.
"Sadly she’s not alone in her grief and we need to change that," Melania Trump said.
The White House has pointed to recent positive movement in trying to rally more resources to combat the epidemic, including the president's recent budget proposal that called for $3 billion in new funding in 2018 and $10 billion in new funding in 2019 for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to combat the opioid crisis. The president also recently nominated Jim Carroll as a new drug czar to lead the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), though lawmakers have recently criticized the White House for scaling back the ONDCP's role in coordinating the administration's response to the opioid crisis.
While prior to his arrival the discussion in the opioid summit largely focused around expanding access to treatment and interdiction efforts of drugs coming in from foreign countries, in his remarks President Trump went as far to suggest that convicted drug dealers should face the death penalty.
"They kill hundreds and hundreds of people, and most of them don't even go to jail. If you shoot one person, they give you life. They give you the death penalty," Trump said. "These people can kill 2,000, 3,000 people and nothing happens to them. And we need strength with respect to the pushers and to the drug dealers. And if we don't do that, you will never solve the problem."
Trump also downplayed the role of "blue ribbon committees," appearing to disparage his own appointed opioid commission that issued a round of recommendations intended to combat the crisis last year.
"If you want to be weak and talk about just blue ribbon committees, that is the not answer," Trump said "The answer is you have to have strength and toughness. The drug dealers and the pushers are -- they are doing damage. They are really doing damage. Some countries have a very, very tough penalty. The ultimate penalty."
Still looming over most of the summit was the recent turbulence and controversies across the administration.
Senior counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway moderated two panels with Cabinet secretaries, including several who have drawn fire in recent weeks for negative headlines related to the management of their agencies.
Veterans' Affairs Secretary David Shulkin participated in a panel on prevention, treatment and recovery with Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson. Shulkin recently apologized to VA staff after the agency's Office of the Inspector General alleged Shulkin improperly accepted a gift of Wimbledon tickets during a work trip to London. Carson, meanwhile, has also sought to beat back criticism after it was revealed earlier this week his agency spent more than $31,000 on a new table and chairs for the dining room adjacent to Carson's office. Carson has since asked HUD to cancel the order.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions also spoke on a panel amid heightened tensions with the president following a tweet from Trump Wednesday that described Sessions' actions as "disgraceful."
Why is A.G. Jeff Sessions asking the Inspector General to investigate potentially massive FISA abuse. Will take forever, has no prosecutorial power and already late with reports on Comey etc. Isn’t the I.G. an Obama guy? Why not use Justice Department lawyers? DISGRACEFUL!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 28, 2018
In a remarkable move, Sessions released a statement Wednesday appearing to push back against the president.
"As long as I am the attorney general, I will continue to discharge my duties with integrity and honor," Sessions said. "And this department will continue to do its work in a fair and impartial manner according to the law and Constitution."
Trump did not directly interact with Sessions while the two were in the room together, though he did briefly reference him in his remarks.
"I've spoken with Jeff about bringing a lawsuit against some of these opioid companies," Trump said.