Top Trump critic set to testify before close ally sparks tensions on Capitol Hill

“Dr. Bright, the partnership with BARDA has been a very important one, and I think that you’re taking it to new places,” Eshoo told him in a June 2018 congressional hearing, calling Bright one of her “heroes.”

Eshoo has rushed to hold Thursday’s hearing over Republicans’ objections since Bright publicly alleged on April 22 that the Trump administration forced him out of his job over his opposition to Trump’s demand for approval of an unproven malaria drug to fight Covid-19. The congresswoman told CNN on April 23 that she planned to convene the subcommittee, and hours after Bright formally filed his whistleblower complaint on May 5, Eshoo announced that the hearing would be this week. Democrats have seen Bright’s testimony as an opportunity to highlight the Trump administration’s missteps in the response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Both Eshoo and a spokesperson for Bright characterized their relationship as professional and not a factor ahead of Thursday’s hearing.

“He is a scientist,” Bright’s spokesperson said. “If members of Congress call him, no matter if it is a Republican or a Democrat, he responds back. This is not about politics.”

Eshoo put it this way: “I announced in April that I would hold a hearing because the American people deserve to hear Dr. Bright’s story. This matter is at the heart of our nation’s response to the worst public health pandemic in a century and it falls under the jurisdiction of my subcommittee. When Dr. Bright filed his complaint, I followed through on my promise to hold a hearing.”

But Eshoo’s approach has sparked tensions on Capitol Hill — some of which have spilled into public view, as lawmakers battle over questions of pace, precedent and whether Bright’s allegations have even been investigated yet.

Calling a hearing at this point “premature and not respectful,” Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas) wrote a bracing letter to Eshoo that his office posted on Tuesday, adding that Eshoo has disregarded longstanding practices he followed as the subcommittee’s prior chair. “I certainly never sent witness invitations without informing my counterparts or noticed a hearing via tweet,” Burgess wrote, saying that he endorses Bright’s right to file his whistleblower complaint but is seeking adequate time to consider it.

For instance, committee lawmakers traditionally discuss the structure, format and potential witnesses about two weeks ahead of a hearing. But Eshoo didn’t brief Republicans on the hearing’s structure until Monday, about 72 hours beforehand, said two committee aides, giving them little time to prepare or seek witnesses to balance Bright.

Republicans also said that Eshoo didn’t inform them about whom she had invited to testify, noting that the California Democrat sent out invitations to potential witnesses like Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar on her own personal office’s letterhead, rather than the traditional practice of sending invitations through the committee.

Azar, HHS Assistant Secretary for Emergency Preparedness and Response Robert Kadlec and White House trade adviser Peter Navarro — who were all extensively mentioned in Bright’s complaint — declined to testify this week, meaning that Bright will not face challenges from other witnesses on Thursday. Eshoo also has not made clear if her office independently vetted Bright’s allegations, which center on his contention that he was ousted as BARDA chief after resisting Trump’s efforts to speed approval of the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for Covid-19.

“She’s really ignored all the serious steps you’d have to have a serious inquiry into his allegations,” said a senior GOP committee aide.

The Office of Special Counsel on Friday recommended that Bright be temporarily reinstated during its own investigation.

Meanwhile, lawmakers spent days wrestling over safety and process issues for the hearing amid the Covid-19 pandemic, such as how the 33-member subcommittee can hear Bright’s testimony while ensuring that members remain socially distanced.

Eshoo addressed many of the criticisms in a letter back to Burgess on Tuesday, saying that the committee had worked out a plan to protect members and that urgency was paramount. “The reason we are acting quickly should be obvious,” the congresswoman wrote. “Every day we delay, and the federal government continues its dysfunctional approach to this crisis, more lives are endangered.”

The letters lay bare tensions within the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee, including a fight over why Eshoo’s subcommittee is leading the hearing and not the panel’s Oversight and Investigations subcommittee, which traditionally oversees health care whistleblower allegations and requires witnesses to give sworn testimony. But Bright is set to testify before the Health subcommittee overseen by Eshoo, which aides said has not sworn in a witness for about two decades.

Offering sworn testimony raises the risks if a witness is found to have committed perjury, and Eshoo told POLITICO that she would not have Bright sworn in, suggesting it was unnecessary.

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