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Democrats demand answers from Azar after NBC News report on family separation vote

In a letter sent Thursday, three House Democrats are asking Azar to explain whether he attended the 2018 White House meeting and, if he did, how he voted.
Image: Alex Azar
Alex Azar during a briefing at the White House on Aug. 23, 2020.Alex Brandon / AP

A congressional committee is asking for answers from Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar following NBC News reporting that he and other Trump administration officials were invited to a May 2018 meeting in the White House Situation Room where they voted by a show of hands to separate migrant children who crossed the border illegally with their parents.

In a letter sent from the House Committee on Energy and Commerce on Thursday, three Democratic members said the recent reporting is at odds with Azar’s previous statements that suggested he was not aware the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy would separate children.

“You testified that you were ‘disappointed’ that you were not told about potential family separations, and when asked whether you would have stopped the policy, you testified, ‘[i] I had been alerted to it, I could have raised objections and concerns, absolutely,’” the letter said.

NBC News reported that Azar’s name was among others on an invite list to the meeting where, according to two officials present, then Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said there were not enough resources to prosecute parents and return them to their families in a timely manner.

Without a swift process, the children would enter into the custody of Health and Human Services, where Azar was and is still in charge. White House advisor Stephen Miller moved the issue to a vote, and by a show of hands the attendees agreed to move forward with the policy, the two officials told NBC News.

It was not clear whether Azar attended the meeting or was merely invited.

The committee is asking Azar to answer questions, including whether he attended the meeting and, if he did, how he voted. They are also asking for any documents related to the meeting.

“If you attended this meeting and were informed of this policy proposal, why did you testify before the Committee that you were not aware of this policy and its impacts on HHS until after it was publicly announced?” the letter said.

“Throughout the fallout of the family separation crisis, you have worked to distance yourself from the policy, claiming that the policy originated at DHS and the Department of Justice, and was forced upon HHS…But if this new reporting is accurate, it indicates that at best, you should have known about the implications of the proposed family separation policy but did not object to it—and at worst, you were complicit in the decision to separate thousands of vulnerable children from their families,” the three committee members wrote.

HHS spokesman Michael Caputo said at the time of publication of the NBC News story, “This never happened.”

Caputo has recently taken a leave of absence following comments he made on his Facebook page about the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Azar has until October 1 to respond to the committee’s questions, the letter said.

“We will respond to Congress," a Health and Human Services spokesperson said Thursday.