Trump No Longer Thinks Climate Change is a Hoax, Still Not Sure It’s Manmade

During an interview with CBS’s Lesley Stahl on Sunday that aired on 60 Minutes, President Donald Trump backed off his claim that climate change is a hoax but made it clear he was not ready to say it was indeed manmade.

“I think something’s happening. Something’s changing and it’ll change back again,” Trump said. “I don’t think it’s a hoax. I think there’s probably a difference. But I don’t know that it’s manmade. I will say this: I don’t want to give trillions and trillions of dollars. I don’t want to lose millions and millions of jobs.”

At one point Stahl noted it would be remarkable if all the recent weather emergencies may change his mind.

“You know, I– I was thinking what if he said, ‘No, I’ve seen the hurricane situations, I’ve changed my mind. There really is climate change.’ And I thought, ‘Wow, what an impact,’” Stahl said.

Trump replied: I’m not denying climate change. But it could very well go back. You know, we’re talkin’ about over millions of years. They say that we had hurricanes that were far worse than what we just had with Michael.”

Stahl, who suggested Trump really was denying it, then asked him to pin down when he says, “they say.”

“People say,” Trump replied, before casting doubt on scientists’ agendas.

“You’d have to show me the scientists because they have a very big political agenda, Lesley,” the president said.

[Mediaite]

Trump suggests Chicago implement ‘stop and frisk’ to curb violence

President Trump said Monday that he’s directed Attorney General Jeff Sessions to provide federal assistance to the city of Chicago to limit gun violence and suggested the city implement the controversial practice of “stop and frisk.”

“We want to straighten it out and straighten it out fast. There’s no reason for what’s going on there,” Trump told law enforcement officials at a convention for the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

Trump said he’s urging Chicago officials to “strongly consider stop and frisk.”

“It works, and it was meant for problems like Chicago,” Trump said, garnering applause from the audience.

Trump previously suggested during his 2016 presidential campaign that stop and frisk could be used to help prevent violence in black communities. He has cited its effectiveness in New York City under former Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R), who is now his personal lawyer.

The city’s use of the practice, in which police stop, question and frisk a person on the grounds of reasonable suspicion that either the person is dangerous or a crime has been committed, was ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge in 2013.

In addition to proposing Chicago implement the policy, Trump said Monday that he’d like city officials to change a 2016 deal between the police department and the American Civil Liberties Union that required city police to document every street stop they made in an effort to curb racial profiling.

The president suggested that law enforcement had their hands tied by the agreement.

“The crime spree is a terrible blight on that city, and we’ll do everything possible to get it done,” Trump said. “I know the law enforcement people in Chicago, and I know how good they are. They could solve the problem if they were simply allowed to do their job and do their job properly.”

Trump’s directive to get the federal government involved in Chicago comes days after a city police officer was convicted of second-degree murder in the 2014 shooting of teenager Laquan McDonald.

The shooting prompted numerous protests across the city, and the conviction renewed tensions between the community and city law enforcement.

While activists and residents praised the decision as a measure of justice, the Chicago Police union blasted the jury’s decision, calling it a “sham trial and shameful verdict.”

Chicago has long struggled with a reputation as a city beset with gun violence, though The Chicago Tribune reported that there have been fewer shooting victims so far in 2018 than at the same point in the previous two years.

[The Hill]

Reality

Donald Trump isn’t the “law and order candidate,” but the “every failed police tactic that targeted minorities candidate.”

Trump failed to mention that in every city where stop-and-frisk was implemented, they have become case studies in the perils of such an approach.

Four of the five biggest American cities — New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Philadelphia — have all used stop-and-frisk tactics in an attempt to lower crime. Despite what Trump says, the results are mixed, and in each city the methods have been found unconstitutional for disproportionately targeting minorities.

For example, in Donald Trump’s hometown the NYPD’s practices were found to violate New Yorkers’ Fourth Amendment rights to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures and also found that the practices were racially discriminatory in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Trump wants to take this nationally.

The most proven form of policing is when officers work with communities thereby gaining trust of a population. So when there is an issue in their neighborhood, residents are more likely to open up and offer evidence.

Media

Interior Dept. Implements New Science Policy That Makes Oil Drilling Easier

The Interior Department has implemented a new policy that it says is meant to boost transparency and integrity of the science that its agencies use to make decisions.

The policy, outlined in an order issued last week by Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt, mandates that officials only use scientific studies or findings whose underlying data are publicly available and reproducible, with few exceptions.

Like a similar policy that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has proposed, critics say the new “Promoting Open Science” policy is meant to restrict Interior’s ability to write regulations or make other decisions, by putting unnecessary restrictions on officials’ ability to use sound science.

Interior’s policy has potential reverberations across the department’s diverse agencies that oversee areas like endangered species, offshore drilling, American Indian relations and geology.

Bernhardt wrote in his order that the policy fits with President Trump’s executive orders on promoting energy production and reducing regulations, as well as past Interior policies on science.

He said the order is intended to ensure Interior “bases its decisions on the best available science and provide the American people with enough information to thoughtfully and substantively evaluate the data, methodology, and analysis used by the Department to inform its decisions.”

“This order came about in response to perennial concerns that the department has not been providing sufficient information to the public to explain how and why it reaches certain conclusions, or that it is cherry picking science to support pre-determined outcomes,” Interior spokeswoman Faith Vander Voort said in a statement.

“The goal is for the department to play with its cards face-up, so that the American people can see how the department is analyzing important public policy issues and be confident that it is using the best information available to inform its decisions.”

Charise Johnson, a researcher at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said she doesn’t buy the administration’s argument that it cares about transparency.

“They want everything publicly accessible, including the raw data, and that just doesn’t happen with peer-reviewed science, because that just doesn’t tell you anything,” she said.

“It also makes it look like they don’t trust their own scientists’ work. These are people who do their jobs, they do it well, they’re qualified to be there and they know how science works. A lot of these other people are political appointees without science backgrounds who just want to carry out a certain agenda.”

Johnson said the order looks like it’s meant to further the Trump administration’s agenda at Interior, like removing barriers to oil and natural gas drilling and reducing protections for endangered species.

“This is an attempt to cherry-pick the kind of science that they want to put forward,” said Yogin Kothari, the Union of Concerned Scientists’ senior Washington representative.

Unlike the EPA’s policy, Interior’s new science order is not a proposed rule, so it took effect immediately last week.

[The Hill]

Trump Booted Foreign Startup Founders. Other Countries Embraced Them

A master’s degree from Yale and angel investments in his startup weren’t enough to protect Mezyad AlMasoud from Donald Trump. A little more than a year ago, Trump moved to kill a nascent visa program meant specifically for company founders with capital in hand, such as AlMasoud. The Kuwaiti’s immigration lawyer called his Wall Street office to tell him that without the startup visa, which could have been granted under a plan known as the International Entrepreneur Rule, he had two weeks to leave the U.S. That afternoon, AlMasoud spent hours sitting by the East River, looking out at the Brooklyn Bridge. The thought running through his mind: “How do I tell my 5-year-old daughter I failed?”

As it turned out, he didn’t have to. Flair Inc., his financial technology startup, incorporated in June and is starting to hire engineers who can develop its money-management web services for pro athletes. It’s just not in the U.S. Flair is hiring in Vancouver, where AlMasoud was one of the first people accepted to a startup visa program that looks a lot like the fast-track Obama plan Trump blew up. In the past 18 months, similar programs with a range of perks have sprung up in at least a dozen countries, including the U.K., China, Japan, Israel, Germany, Estonia, Australia, and New Zealand. As with many of his peers, the first choice was always America, says AlMasoud, whose startup is among 130 created by people admitted to Canada’s new visa program since February.

Immigrant founders and co-founders have a strong track record in Silicon Valley (see Google, Tesla, EBay, Stripe), as do the children of immigrants (Apple, Oracle, Amazon.com). But the Valley’s fabled Sand Hill Road is no longer the center of the venture capital world, and as the Trump administration continues to increase restrictions on most forms of immigration, other locales are even more eager than usual to frame themselves as the next great innovation hub. Startups are doing a lot more venue-shopping than they used to, says Merilin Lukk, who runs Estonia’s recruiting program and has brought at least 160 founders to the country since last year, creating about 440 jobs.

Countries have offered all kinds of perks to differentiate themselves. A new program in Israel throws in $20,000 relocation bonuses, a local accountant, Hebrew classes, yearly flights home, and paid cellphones. Other offers include low-interest loans, six-day visa processing, and, most important, the equivalent of a green card. “The fight over tech talent is not something that is coming in the future. It’s happening right now,” says Kate Mitchell, the founder of Scale Venture Partners in Foster City, Calif. “And we are losing.”

That’s a bit of an overstatement for the time being, but the U.S. certainly isn’t trying to match those offers. The Trump administration derailed the legacy Obama program a week before its planned rollout last year, and although a lawsuit by the National Venture Capital Association managed to force the feds to eyeball an initial handful of applications, a spokesman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services says the program “does not adequately protect U.S. investors and U.S. workers” and that the agency intends to officially scrap the program as soon as it has finished reviewing public comments on the matter.

The move is part of a broader set of moves to restrict visa immigration, including the H-1B visas that have historically gone overwhelmingly to tech workers. Critics of the program, including labor advocates as well as Trump-style nationalists, say the visas have too often been abused by outsourcers and companies that simply want to pay workers less. There may be some truth to that: More than 50 percent of the country’s working science and engineering Ph.D.s are foreign-born. But another way to look at those numbers is that America needs immigrants.

Canada is one of many countries that seem less conflicted, says AlMasoud, who’s enjoying his weekend hikes in the Vancouver area without looking over his shoulder. The Canadian immigration agency says it has approved 200 applicants for permanent residency since February, and AlMasoud is hoping he’ll be on that list soon, too. For now, he’s trying to get Flair to a point where he can apply for approval from American financial regulators and start showing it off publicly. Only occasionally, as when he reminisces about NBA games or his bygone ’67 Pontiac GTO, does he grow wistful about the opportunities he left behind. “It had always been my dream to start a business in the U.S.,” he says. “Because of what Trump has done, now I have to hire Canadians.”

[Bloomberg]

The EPA Will Dissolve Its Science Advisory Office

The Environmental Protection Agency will eliminate the Office of the Science Advisor, an entity within the agency that works to ensure its policies and decisions are based on quality science. The New York Times reports that the scientific advisory position, which currently reports directly to the head of the EPA, will be merged into another office — the Office of Research and Development. “It’s certainly a pretty big demotion, a pretty big burying of this office,” Michael Halpern, deputy director of the Center for Science and Democracy with the Union of Concerned Scientists, told the publication. “Everything from research on chemicals and health, to peer-review testing to data analysis would inevitably suffer.”

This is just the latest in a series of moves that have weakened the EPA and shifted its focus from science-driven policy to a relaxing of environmental protection regulations. The agency pulled information on climate change from its website after the Trump administration took over. It also stopped sponsoring the Climate Leadership Awards program, prohibited its scientists from giving talks on climate change and has proposed severe restrictions on what research can be used to inform regulations. Further, under the leadership of a climate change denier, it has made moves to repeal the Clean Power Plan and roll back fuel efficiency standards.

These actions haven’t gone without push back, however. A number of states have sued the EPA over both its decision to lift a ban on ozone-damaging hydrofluorocarbons and its gutting of fuel efficiency standards. The EPA’s Scientific Advisory Board also voted earlier this year to review many of the agency’s proposals.

When asked about the decision to dissolve the Office of the Science Advisor, an EPA spokesperson sent the New York Times a statement that said the move would “eliminate redundancies.” Jennifer Orme-Zavaleta, who currently serves as both the agency’s science advisor and the deputy assistant administrator of the Office of Research Development, has been with the agency since 1981.

In a prepared statement Orme-Zavaleta said the move would “combine offices with similar functions” and that “the assistant administrator for [the Office of Research and Development] has customarily served as the EPA science advisor which will continue to be the case.” The EPA currently does not have an assistant administrator for that office. Among the programs housed by the Office of the Science Advisor, whose fates now remain unclear, are the Science and Technology Policy Council and the Scientific Integrity Office.

In a separate move, the EPA also put the head of its Office of Children’s Health Protection on administrative leave, a decision it said was not disciplinary. In an email obtained by CNN, the office’s director, Ruth Etzel, said the action was intended to “cause chaos” and undermine the office’s work.

[Engadget]

Trump Administration Wants to Make It Easier to Release Methane Into Air

The Trump administration, taking its third major step this year to roll back federal efforts to fight climate change, is preparing to make it significantly easier for energy companies to release methane into the atmosphere.

Methane, which is among the most powerful greenhouse gases, routinely leaks from oil and gas wells, and energy companies have long said that the rules requiring them to test for emissions were costly and burdensome.

The Environmental Protection Agency, perhaps as soon as this week, plans to make public a proposal to weaken an Obama-era requirementthat companies monitor and repair methane leaks, according to documents reviewed by The New York Times. In a related move, the Interior Department is also expected in coming days to release its final version of a draft rule, proposed in February, that essentially repeals a restriction on the intentional venting and “flaring,” or burning, of methane from drilling operations.

The new rules follow two regulatory rollbacks this year that, taken together, represent the foundation of the United States’ effort to rein in global warming. In July, the E.P.A. proposed weakening a rule on carbon dioxide pollution from vehicle tailpipes. And in August, the agency proposed replacing the rule on carbon dioxide pollution from coal-fired power plants with a weaker one that would allow far more global-warming emissions to flow unchecked from the nation’s smokestacks.

“They’re taking them down, one by one,” said Janet McCabe, the E.P.A.’s top climate and clean-air regulator in the Obama administration.

Officials from the E.P.A., the Interior Department and the White House did not respond to emails and telephone calls seeking comment.

Industry groups praised the expected changes. “It’s a neat pair” of proposals on methane, said Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, an association of independent oil and gas companies that is based in Denver. The Obama-era E.P.A. methane rule, she said, “was the definition of red tape. It was a record-keeping nightmare that was technically impossible to execute in the field.”

Ms. Sgamma praised the Trump administration for turning the oil companies’ requests into policy, noting that the Obama administration frequently turned proposals from environmental groups into policy. “It all depends on who you trust,” she said. “That administration trusted environmentalists. This one trusts industry.”

The regulation of methane, while not as widely discussed as emissions from cars and coal plants, was nonetheless a major component of Mr. Obama’s efforts to combat climate change. Methane makes up only about nine percent of greenhouse gases, but it is around 25 times more effective than carbon dioxide in trapping heat in the atmosphere. About one-third of methane pollution is estimated to come from oil and gas operations.

The forthcoming proposals from the E.P.A. and Interior Department would allow far more methane to leak from oil and gas drilling operations, environmentalists say. “These leaks can pop up any time, anywhere, up and down the oil and gas supply chain,” said Matt Watson, a specialist in methane pollution with the Environmental Defense Fund, an advocacy group. “The longer you go in between inspections, the longer leaks will go undetected and unrepaired.”

The proposals exemplify President Trump’s policy quest to roll back regulations on businesses, particularly oil, gas and coal companies. While significant aspects of the president’s broader agenda — including immigration and trade policy, and the proposed border wall with Mexico — remain mired in confusion, and as the administration struggles under the investigation into the presidential campaign’s ties with Russia, the E.P.A. and Interior Department have steadily pressed forward with rollbacks of environmental regulations.

“In other areas of policymaking, like immigration and health care, they appear to have brought into the administration ideologues who don’t know a lot about policymaking,” said Cecilia Muñoz, who directed the White House Domestic Policy Council in the Obama administration. “But in climate change and energy, they appear to have brought in people who know exactly what they’re doing, and know exactly where the levers are.”

The pace of the proposals has not been slowed by the resignation in July of Scott Pruitt, who left the top job at the E.P.A. under a cloud of ethics scandals. Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist who worked in the E.P.A. under the first President George Bush, is now the agency’s acting chief.

The E.P.A.’s new methane proposal, according to the draft seen by The Times, would loosen a 2016 rule that required oil and gas drillers to perform leak inspections as frequently as every six months on their drilling equipment, and to repair leaks within 30 days. The proposed amendment would lengthen that to once a year in most cases, and to as infrequently as once every two years for low-producing wells. It would also double the amount of time a company could wait before repairing a methane leak from 30 to 60 days.

It would also double the amount of time required between inspections of the equipment that traps and compresses the natural gas, from once every three months to once every six months. On the Alaskan North Slope, where oil and gas companies contend that harsh weather makes it difficult to conduct inspections, such equipment would only have to be monitored annually.

In addition, the E.P.A. proposal would let energy companies operating in states that have their own state-level methane standards follow those standards instead of the federal ones. That would include states such as Texas, where the pollution standards have been more lax than federal standards.

If implemented, the proposal would recoup nearly all the costs to the oil and gas industry that would have been imposed by the Obama-era regulation. The E.P.A. estimated that rule would have cost companies about $530 million by 2025. The E.P.A. estimates that the proposed changes would save the oil and gas industry $484 million by the same year.

[The New York Times]

Trump Takes Aim at Google, Claims Search Results ‘RIGGED’ Against Him: ‘Illegal?’

President Donald Trump unleashed some unusually early morning tweets on Tuesday, citing a report from a conservative website to rip Google for allegedly biased search results.

Trump first claimed that “Google search results for ‘Trump News’ shows only the viewing/reporting of Fake New Media.”

“In other words, they have it RIGGED, for me & others, so that almost all stories & news is BAD,” he continued. “Fake CNN is prominent. Republican/Conservative & Fair Media is shut out.”

Trump then asked if the search results were “Illegal”, before elaborating: “96% of… results on ‘Trump News’ are from National Left-Wing Media, very dangerous.”

“Google & others are suppressing voices of Conservatives and hiding information and news that is good,” he added. “They are controlling what we can & cannot see. This is a very serious situation-will be addressed!”

The president appears to be referencing a report by conservative blog PJ Media, which claimed that “96 Percent of Google Search Results for ‘Trump’ News Are from Liberal Media Outlets.”

The report tested out results from searching “Trump” in the news section of Google, analyzing the results using Sharyl Attkisson‘s “media bias chart.” The report looked at the first 100 items that appeared, and found that supposedly “left-leaning sites” made up “96 percent of the total results.” CNN — one of the highest trafficked news websites in the world — appeared the most frequently by a “large margin”, the report said, while conservative websites like National Review or Breitbart did not.

[Mediaite]

Reality

The author of the report has since distanced herself from the claims, calling them “not scientific” and “based on only a small sample size” of 100 results.)

Trump administration moves to open 1.6 million acres to fracking, drilling in California

Ending a five-year moratorium, the Trump administration Wednesday took a first step toward opening 1.6 million acres of California public land to fracking and conventional oil drilling, triggering alarm bells among environmentalists.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management said it’s considering new oil and natural gas leases on BLM-managed lands in Fresno, San Luis Obispo and six other San Joaquin Valley and Central Coast counties. Meanwhile, activists in San Luis Obispo are pushing a ballot measure this fall to ban fracking and new oil exploration in the county.

If BLM goes ahead with the plan, it would mark the first time since 2013 that the agency has issued a new lease for oil or gas exploration in California, according to the Center for Biological Diversity, which immediately vowed to fight the move. California is the nation’s fourth largest oil-producing state, after Texas, North Dakota and Alaska, with much of the production concentrated in the southern San Joaquin Valley and Southern California.

The Trump administration is trying to “sell off our public lands again,” said Clare Lakewood, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity in San Francisco. The federal government oversees about 15 million acres of public lands in California, and leases some of them for private use by contractors.

Lakewood said environmentalists are particularly concerned about the possibility of a big increase in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the controversial process of extracting oil or gas by injecting chemicals or other liquids into subterranean rocks. The notice released Wednesday by the BLM, which allows for 30 days of public comment, specifically seeks “public input on issues and planning criteria related to hydraulic fracturing.”

Environmentalists say fracking can contaminate groundwater and increase earthquake risks, and they’ve called on Gov. Jerry Brown to ban the practice. The energy industry says there’s no evidence of environmental harm from fracking. The U.S. Geological Survey says that, when “conducted properly,” poses little risk to groundwater.

Kara Siepmann of the Western States Petroleum Association, the leading oil lobby in California, said the association is “supportive of BLM beginning the comprehensive evaluation and scoping process of federal lands in California.” Rock Zierman of the California Independent Petroleum Association, whose members include smaller oil companies, said expanded production could reduce the state’s growing dependence on imported oil.

Although Brown has allowed fracking to continue, the Legislature has passed a law that requires energy producers to get additional permitting if they practice fracking. And earlier this year, when the Trump administration began the process of repealing all federal regulations of fracking, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra sued the administration.

Fracking has become a hot-button issue in particular in San Luis Obispo County, where county supervisors placed a measure on the November ballot that would ban new oil wells and new fracking operations in unincorporated regions of the county.

The measure’s leading proponent, Charles Varni of the Coalition to Protect San Luis Obispo County, said he was angered to hear of the Bureau of Land Management’s decision, which would affect pockets of land throughout the county but primarily in the eastern and northwestern areas.

“We don’t want to see any expansion of oil and gas extraction in San Luis Obispo County,” he said. “We want to protect our groundwater resources for higher uses.”

A relatively small amount of oil is produced on private land in the Price Canyon area of San Luis Obispo County.

Varni acknowledged that his ballot measure, if passed by voters, would have no impact on energy production on federally-managed lands.

According to the Center for Biological Diversity, the federal government hasn’t opened any new energy leases in California since 2013, when a federal judge ruled the Bureau of Land Management violated federal environmental laws by issuing oil leases in Monterey County without studying the impact of fracking.

Trump wrongly blames California’s worsening wildfires on water diversions

As wildfires continued to scorch California, President Donald Trump on Sunday issued a tweet that befuddled experts, wrongly blaming the state’s water diversions for making the blazes worse.

California’s environmental laws, he claimed, “aren’t allowing massive amount of readily available water to be properly utilized. It is being diverted into the Pacific Ocean. Must also tree clear to stop fire spreading!”

While decades-old state and federal forest management strategies have been cited as exacerbating California’s wildfires in recent years, experts Sunday were quick to refute Trump’s claim that water policy was to blame.

While California’s river water is tightly managed to account for drinking, agriculture and environmental needs, it is not being diverted into the ocean. And the problem is not that the state lacks the water to fight fires, but that years of drought have made forests and brush more flammable.

“On the water side, it boggles the mind,” UC Merced professor and wildfire specialist LeRoy Westerling told the San Francisco Chronicle. “We do manage all of our rivers in California, and all the water is allocated many times over. So I’m not sure what he was recommending. . . . Even if we eliminated all habitat for riparian species and fish, and allowed saltwater intrusion into the delta and set up a sprinkler system over the state, that wouldn’t compensate for greater moisture loss from climate change.”

Meanwhile, the Trump administration on Sunday approved a federal disaster declaration for the state. Nine people have been killed by the 18 wildfires currently burning across the state. The Mendocino Complex fire north of San Francisco has grown to the fifth-largest in state history, burning almost 400 square miles by Sunday. and threatening 15,000 homes. Meanwhile, the Ferguson fire entered Yosemite National Park, which remained largely closed to visitors, and the Carr fire near Redding claimed its seventh life, when a PG&E lineman crashed his vehicle while working with crews to fight the blaze. Overall, more than 470,000 acres have burned in the state, with more than 14,000 firefighters on the front lines.

Trump policy shop filters facts to fit his message

President Donald Trump’s appointees in the health department have deleted positive references to Obamacare, altered a report that undermined the administration’s positions on refugees and added anti-abortion language to the strategic plan — part of an ideological overhaul of the agency’s research office.

While every administration puts its imprint on the executive branch and promotes ideas that advance its own agenda, this one has ventured several steps further — from scrubbing links to climate change studies from an Environmental Protection Agency website to canceling an Interior Department study on coal mining risks and suppressing reports on water contaminationand the dangers of formaldehyde.

Inside the Health and Human Services policy research shop, staffers say the political pressures to tailor facts to fit Trump’s message have been unprecedented.

Several pointed to embarrassments such as PolitiFact grading a lawmaker’s statement, based on the agency’s May 2017 report on Obamacare premium hikes, as “false,” and concluding the study had serious methodological problems.

Another report suggesting that millions more people would get health coverage if Obamacare were rolled back — a finding at odds with nearly every independent analysis — was widely mocked and produced over the objections of career staff at the office of the assistant secretary for planning and evaluation, known as ASPE, say several sources.

“The heartbreaking part is that ASPE is the source of the evidence and the science for how decisions are made,” said a former senior official, who worked under both Republican and Democratic administrations. “It’s just another example of how we’re moving to a post-fact era.”

The office has been especially vulnerable to political pressure because its leadership remains in flux. The University of Minnesota health economist tapped to lead the office by Trump has been dogged by questions about his financial entanglements, leaving his nomination in limbo for more than a year. The acting head of ASPE was recently reassigned to a regional office, and the top deputy altered McKinsey-produced data to make it more favorable to the Trump administration, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the changes.

“I find the attack on the integrity and the culture of the office to be disturbing,” said Richard Frank, a Harvard health economist who ran ASPE as an Obama administration political appointee. “This is really a departure to an office that has a 50-year history to it.”

HHS officials vigorously disputed portrayals of the office as ideologically driven.

“I reject the premise of your question and allegation,” said spokeswoman Caitlin Oakley. “Secretary [Alex] Azar has made very clear that HHS is a science- and evidence-based organization and it will operate accordingly.”

Oakley said the 120-person office has been refocused to work on Trump administration priorities like drug pricing and the opioid epidemic. Two staffers say those topics are regarded as safer ground because they are not part of the health care culture wars. Under Azar, who assumed leadership of the agency about six months ago — after most of these incidents occurred — the office has produced a six-page research brief on drug pricing, which published this week, and two studies on the opioid epidemic. Oakley said more reports are coming.

But the group’s morale and role remain diminished, as key staff and teams have dwindled; there are just three staffers working on analyzing health coverage, down from about a dozen at the end of the Obama administration, said a staffer.

Republican health policy analyst Lanhee Chen, who served as an HHS senior counselor in the George W. Bush administration, scoffed at the notion that this policy shop is more partisan than the one that preceded it.

“I don’t believe the Trump administration ASPE has put out reports that are any less analytically or methodologically rigorous than those of the Obama administration ASPE,” Chen said. “Those who express concerns regarding the quality of reports ‘falling off’ are probably using that argument as a cover for the fact that they disagree with the findings of the reports.”

Chen said he regards the policy shop as a vehicle to advance administration policy, “so in that sense, methodological rigor has not necessarily been a metric I have used to evaluate their reports. That’s why we have studies from academics and analysts outside of government.”

This story is drawn from interviews with nine individuals with knowledge of ASPE operations, most of whom asked for confidentiality to speak freely, as well as with outside observers.

Shift in office’s focus

ASPE historically has been used to investigate the impact of HHS policies and help shape future strategy, and under the Obama administration, it focused closely on the expansion of health insurance coverage and the Affordable Care Act — issues on which Barack Obama had campaigned heavily and made central to his presidency. The office published 43 reports on the ACA’s effects on rural hospitals, women’s health and other discrete corners of health care between January 2015 and January 2017 alone, generally extolling the effects and sometimes overlooking the drawbacks.

For instance, one 2016 study on choosing health plans in the ACA market was criticized for slanting its findings.

[Politico]

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