Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

Another Scandal.
Another Whistleblower.
Another Impeachment?

Rick Bright was fired for speaking out against Trumpian interference in science and medicine.
May 7, 2020
Another Scandal.<br>Another Whistleblower.<br>Another Impeachment?
Dr. Rick Bright testifying before Congress in 2018.

The story of Dr. Rick Bright—government virologist turned whistleblower—should not be treated as just another Trump administration scandal, soon to be forgotten among the countless others. Nor should we think about it as just the latest bit of evidence of this administration’s lethal fecklessness in responding to the coronavirus pandemic.

It is both of those things. But it is also good reason to once again impeach the president.

I know what you’re thinking: We’ve been through this before. Impeachment is slow and it takes time and energy that Congress and the American people should be expending on other important tasks, like fighting the pandemic and restoring the economy. And another impeachment in the House will be futile, since the Republican-controlled Senate still won’t remove the president.

But hear me out: The pandemic creates new reasons to remove the president—because of his latest actions and because of what still lies ahead. And even if Senate Republicans wouldn’t vote differently—despite the gathering electoral storm clouds—at least the effort again to remove this singularly unfit president would be a worthy historical act of devotion to the Constitution.

Let’s start with the administration’s recent record. Dr. Bright’s whistleblower complaint makes it clear that the president’s unabashed corruption has contributed to the administration’s botched coronavirus response.

Dr. Bright has a Ph.D. in immunology and molecular pathogenesis from Emory University. He is a leading expert in pandemic preparedness and response, as well as in the design of diagnostic tools required to track pandemics like the one we are now fighting. After a decade working on vaccines at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Bright moved over to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in 2010. Until last month, he was the deputy assistant HHS secretary for preparedness and response, while also serving as the director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA). BARDA is responsible for government contracts valued at approximately $50 billion, with an average annual budget of over $1.5 billion. According to Bright’s complaint, “every contract is reviewed by a panel of scientific experts, typically from across HHS, and every contract passes through several layers of review before obtaining approval.”

Over the course of his HHS tenure, Bright “led the expansion of vaccine production capacity from less than 1 million doses to a nearly 1 billion dose capacity” across twelve developing countries. He also served as a scientific advisor to the Department of Defense and the World Health Organization.

So let’s be clear on one thing: Bright is an expert in the development and production of vaccines to combat menaces like the coronavirus. He has a track record of success. America is drowning in the coronavirus crisis. Why, in the midst of the pandemic, would the Trump administration toss aside one of the leading figures in government with expertise and experience?

According to Dr. Bright, he was sidelined for voicing concerns “about the pressure that . . . government officials were exerting on BARDA to invest in drugs, vaccines, and other technologies without proper scientific vetting or that lacked scientific merit.” He objected to the administration’s award of contracts to companies with political connections rather than “exclusively on scientific merit.” Bright insisted “that BARDA would only invest the billions of dollars allocated by Congress to address the COVID-19 pandemic in safe and scientifically vetted solutions and it would not succumb to the pressure of politics or cronyism.” He paid a political price for his integrity as a scientist, physician, and steward of taxpayer dollars.

Dr. Bright was particularly troubled by Trump’s reckless promotion of the broad use of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19, as well as the administration’s plan to source these products from uninspected labs in Pakistan and India. In touting the drugs, Trump promised on March 19: “The nice part is, it’s been around for a long time, so we know that if it—if things don’t go as planned, it’s not going to kill anybody.” After hydroxychloroquine became a conservative cause célèbre for a few weeks, as the Trump administration’s reflexive defenders tripped over one another to praise the president and the drug, the interest petered out—because it became clear that it is not at all the magic bullet they thought it was.

The fight over chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine finally drove a frustrated Bright to go to the press, on the rationale “that Americans needed to have this critical information available to them to better inform them of the risks before taking the medicine.” He claims he “felt that he had exhausted all avenues to alert government officials, who refused to listen or take appropriate action to accurately inform the public.”

Shortly thereafter, he was removed as BARDA director, allegedly in retaliation for his whistleblowing activity under 5 U.S.C. § 2302(b)(8)(A), which protects employees who disclose information that reveals “any violation of any law, rule, or regulation,” or “gross mismanagement, a gross waste of funds, an abuse of authority, or a substantial and specific danger to public health or safety.”

Although Bright’s allegations have not been tested in court, much about his whistleblower complaint is consistent with public reports of how the Trump administration is handling COVID-19. He claims, for example, that he was pressured by an industry consultant with ties to HHS leadership to extend a failed contract with a pharmaceutical company that was slated to expire. The reason? The company’s chief executive officer

was a “wildcard” and a friend of Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and a Senior Advisor to the President. Dr. Bright stood his ground on this contract, which led to some discord between him and HHS leadership.

Kushner’s clumsy and irresponsible self-dealing is not new. According to the Washington Post, a “volunteer” on Kusher’s so-called “coronavirus response team” filed a complaint in April with the House Oversight Committee. That whistleblower asserts that Kushner’s approximately two-dozen recruits from consulting and private equity firms had, as the Post put it, “little expertise in the tasks they were assigned, exacerbating chronic problems in obtaining supplies for hospitals and other needs, according to numerous government officials and a volunteer involved in the effort.”

Keep in mind that Kushner—like Rudy Giuliani, the private lawyer at the center of the last impeachment scandal—has been given massive responsibility within the Trump administration that goes far, far beyond his experience and expertise. He is not a presidential appointee confirmed by the Senate. He did not take an oath of office. And he is not subject to the legislative and regulatory means of oversight and accountability that govern federal employees.

Nor are the ragtag members of his coronavirus task force, which reportedly used a spreadsheet named “VIP Update” to prioritize procurement of protective equipment and other vital medical supplies from Trump allies over experienced, vetted vendors.

But of course, we already know—from numerous reports of Trump’s purging of suspected “Never Trumpers” from the ranks of the civil service and of his replacement of neutral inspectors general with perceived loyalists—that there is no accountability for Donald Trump under his view of the presidency. And so far, Congress has largely gone along with his distortion of the Constitution’s separation of powers.

Bright’s complaint goes on for nearly 60 detailed pages, and is reportedly backed by emails and other documentary evidence of his time at HHS. These facts cannot be ignored.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 is threatening voter safety at the physical polls in November. The president opposes mail-in voting, and Congress has thus far ignored the pressing call to finance nationwide mail-in voting and save the U.S. Postal Service from bankruptcy. As a consequence, the fall election may not be perceived as legitimate—whatever its outcome.

Republican senators’ excuse for excusing Trump’s abuses of office during the last round of impeachment proceedings no longer holds water. Outgoing senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee) justified his vote to acquit this way: “Our founding documents provide for duly elected presidents who serve with ‘the consent of the governed,’ not at the pleasure of the United States Congress. Let the people decide.” But what if a vicious virus and an incompetent president have made voting unsafe and unreliable? The Constitution offers another viable tool for removing a president: impeachment.

Kimberly Wehle

Kimberly Wehle is a contributor to The Bulwark. She served as an assistant U.S. attorney and an associate independent counsel in the Whitewater investigation. She is currently a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law. An ABC News legal contributor, she is the author of three books with HarperCollins: How to Read the Constitution—and Why, What You Need to Know About Voting—and Why, and, most recently, How to Think Like a Lawyer and Why—A Common-Sense Guide to Everyday Dilemmas. Her new book, Pardon Power: How the Pardon System Works—and Why, is forthcoming in September 2024 from Woodhall Press. @kimwehle.