WASHINGTON — Rep. Tom Marino, President Donald Trump's nominee to be the nation's drug czar, has withdrawn from consideration, following reports that he played a key role in weakening the federal government's authority to stop companies from distributing opioids.
"He didn't want to have even the perception of a conflict of interest with drug companies or, frankly, insurance companies," Trump told Fox News Radio in an interview Tuesday, shortly after breaking the news on Twitter.
The announcement follows reports by The Washington Post and CBS News, which detailed the Pennsylvania lawmaker's involvement in crafting a 2016 law, signed by President Barack Obama, that weakened the Drug Enforcement Administration's authority to curb opioid distribution.
It also comes amid growing pressure on Trump to fulfill his pledge to declare the nation's opioid epidemic a "national emergency," as a commission he's convened on the subject has urged him to do. Trump told reporters Monday that he would be making the declaration official next week.
Interviewed by Fox News Radio's Brian Kilmeade, Trump said Marino "felt compelled" to step down from the job.
"He feels very strongly about the opioid problem and the drug problem and Tom Marino said, 'Look, I'll take a pass,'" Trump added. Trump did not say when he and the congressman spoke. Marino could not immediately be reached Tuesday for comment.
Trump had told reporters during a news conference in the White House Rose Garden on Monday that he would look "very closely" at the reports about Marino, adding: "If I think it's 1 percent negative to doing what we want to do, I will make a change," he said.
Democrats had called on Trump to withdraw the nomination, and hailed the news, with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer calling Marino's decision the "right decision."
"We need a drug czar who has seen these devastating effects and who is passionate about ending this opioid epidemic," said Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, whose home state of West Virginia has been among the hardest-hit by the opioid epidemic.
Manchin had scolded the Obama administration for failing to "sound the alarm on how harmful that bill would be for our efforts to effectively fight the opioid epidemic," which kills an estimated 142 people a day nationwide.
In a letter to Trump, Manchin called the opioid crisis "the biggest public health crisis since HIV/AIDS," and said, "we need someone leading the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy who believes we must protect our people, not the pharmaceutical industry."
The Post reported Sunday that the drug industry worked behind the scenes with lobbyists and key members of Congress, including Marino, pouring more than a million dollars into their election campaigns. The major drug distributors prevailed upon the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Justice Department to agree to the industry-friendly law, which undermined efforts to restrict the flow of pain pills that have led to tens of thousands of deaths.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, the bill's lead Senate sponsor, defended the measure Monday, calling allegations that he or Marino "conspired" with drug companies "utterly ridiculous." Hatch, a 40-year veteran of the Senate, said he was "no patsy" of the drug industry.
The language affecting DEA enforcement authority was suggested by DEA and the Justice Department, Hatch said, adding that the agencies could have tried to stop the bill at any time — or recommended that Obama veto the measure.
"Let's not pretend that DEA, both houses of Congress and the Obama White House all somehow wilted under Representative Marino's nefarious influences," Hatch said.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said Monday she will introduce legislation to repeal the 2016 law.
A White House commission convened by Trump and led by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has called on Trump to declare a national emergency to help deal with the growing opioid crisis. An initial report from the commission in July noted that the approximate 142 deaths each day from drug overdoses means the death toll is "equal to September 11th every three weeks."
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein also announced Tuesday that a pair of Chinese nationals had been indicted on charges that they manufactured tons of fentanyl and other powerful narcotics that were then peddled in the United States, killing at least four people and seriously injuring five others.
Authorities said the men controlled one of the world's most prolific international drug-trafficking and money laundering organizations. Also indicted were at least 21 other people accused of trafficking the drugs in the U.S. and Canada, often through the U.S. mail.
Associated Press writers Sadie Gurman and Jill Colvin contributed to this report.