FDA move on controversial drug leaves Trump in an awkward spot

Even after the FDA rescinded the emergency use authorization for hydroxychloroquine, Trump continued to tout the drug. It's worth asking why.
Image: The headquarters of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration
FDA.Jason Reed / REUTERS, FILE
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By Steve Benen

As recently as late May, as part of a discussion on the coronavirus crisis, the White House continued to insist publicly that hydroxychloroquine is "safe" to use. As of yesterday, the FDA delivered a very different message.

The Food and Drug Administration rescinded the emergency use authorization for hydroxychloroquine to treat hospitalized COVID-19 patients on Monday, saying the drug carries too many risks without any apparent benefit. The authorization was first issued in March, and applied to patients hospitalized with the illness and those in clinical trials. In April, the FDA warned doctors against prescribing the drug to COVID-19 patients outside of those settings.

And yet, even after the FDA's move, Donald Trump spoke at a White House event where he continued to pontificate on the controversial medication. "I can't complain about it. I took it for two weeks, and I'm here," the president said. He added, "We've had some great studies," none of which he identified.

Despite the latest evidence, Trump went on to say, "I've had so many people that were so thrilled with the results from hydroxy."

I can appreciate why the president has found himself in a difficult position. Desperate for a possible "game-changer" -- a label he applied to hydroxychloroquine weeks ago -- Trump encouraged Americans to take the medication, personally vouching for its safety. It now seems quite obvious that his efforts to hype the drug were wildly irresponsible. An explanation is in order.

But that's not the only element of the story that warrants further explanation. A Washington Post analysis added yesterday that at various times in recent months, the president seemed to take direct responsibility for the FDA's initial decision to approve hydroxychloroquine for emergency use. Trump went so far as to tell Fox News in late March, "I got the very early approval from the FDA.... I got it done." The Post's analysis added:

Right there is Trump saying he personally exerted pressure on the process -- whether undue or otherwise. You could dismiss it as the characteristic bluster of a president seeking to defend his stewardship of the outbreak, but it doesn't exactly paint a picture of a politics-free decision. By Trump's admission, he was "pushing very hard," and he credited himself with making it all happen. He even suggested it was a "24-hour" process.

The questions surrounding how -- and why -- this process unfolded deserve answers.