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The bizarre new conspiracy theory: Trump sees 'deep state' at FDA

We always need a strong FDA, but during a deadly pandemic, that need is especially acute. The more Trump undermines it, the more serious the effects.
Image: The headquarters of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration

A couple of years ago, Donald Trump told The Hill that he's familiar with the phrase "deep state," but he chooses to avoid it. "I don't like to use it because it sounds so conspiratorial, and believe it or not I'm really not a conspiratorial person," the president said in September 2018.

He did not appear to be kidding.

Nearly two years later, he's apparently gotten over those concerns. The Associated Press reported over the weekend:

President Donald Trump is leveling unfounded attacks on his Food and Drug Administration and distorting the science on effective treatments for COVID-19. Heading this week into the Republican National Convention, he asserted that the agency is slow-walking vaccines and treatments for the coronavirus in a bid to undermine his November reelection effort.

On Twitter, the Republican wrote, "The deep state, or whoever, over at the FDA is making it very difficult for drug companies to get people in order to test the vaccines and therapeutics." He added that these nefarious FDA forces are "obviously" trying to interfere with his re-election bid.

In reality, none of this makes sense, but under the circumstances, the fact that Trump is peddling yet another false claim is not the principal problem.

Rather, what stands out as extraordinary is the president's willingness to start another public feud with his own FDA -- during a deadly pandemic -- accusing the agency of a political conspiracy and undermining public confidence in the department at a critical time. Indeed, Saturday's tweet was the second time in a week in which the president has levied accusations like these against the FDA.

What's more, it's not just Trump. Peter Navarro, a White House trade adviser, has reportedly lashed out at FDA leaders behind the scenes, peddling the same "Deep State" nonsense, and pressing the agency to make its approval process less rigorous.

Meanwhile, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows hit the Sunday shows yesterday, applauding the president for targeting the FDA, and complaining about "bureaucrats" at the agency who are honoring protocols that Team Trump apparently prefers to ignore.

Perhaps most important of all is the question of whether Trump's bullying of the FDA is succeeding. As recently as a week ago, the New York Times reported that the agency was considering an emergency authorization for blood plasma as a COVID-19 treatment, but after leading public-health officials pushed back, the department put the matter "on hold."

Then the president started sharing conspiracy theories about the FDA -- at which point the "hold" was lifted and the White House got its way. According to Trump, this series of events is nearly identical to an emergency authorization he secured months earlier by pushing the FDA on hydroxychloroquine.

Not to put too fine a point on this, but the United States always needs a strong and effective FDA, and during a deadly pandemic, that need is even more acute. The more Trump undermines and politicizes the agency, accusing it of weird political conspiracy theories, and potentially bullying it into submission, the worse it is for all of us.