The decision to reassign Newman and Granito was jointly made by the White House and the health department, said two individuals familiar with the situation. The White House liaison’s office at HHS traditionally serves as a go-between for personnel decisions, although Azar’s team has received little forewarning on many recent personnel moves, the individuals said.
The move leaves Azar’s immediate team with more control over the health department’s direction in the near term, after a series of developments this year that undermined the secretary’s authority, including the surprise installation of top department spokesperson Michael Caputo in April. Caputo, a longtime loyalist to President Donald Trump, began a two-month medical leave last week.
HHS did not respond to an inquiry about specific personnel moves and dismissed a question about whether Harrison was now in charge of department personnel.
“Chief of Staff Brian Harrison is committed to working in close partnership with the White House Office of Presidential Personnel,” an HHS spokesperson said in a statement. “He is the Chief of Staff not the Acting White House Liaison.”
Newman and Granito did not immediately respond to requests for comment. An administration official confirmed that Newman and Granito were shifting full-time to the global media agency and said that there would be a new HHS White House liaison, not Harrison.
HHS senior officials have faulted the White House liaison’s office for a series of personnel moves that have backfired amid the public health crisis, including the selection of longtime Republican communications aide Emily Miller as Food and Drug Administration chief spokesperson. Miller, who had no prior medical or scientific background, lasted 11 days in the role before she was shifted to a new position at FDA after clashes over the agency’s communications approach.
The White House liaison’s office also brought in at least five of Caputo’s allies, including scientific adviser Paul Alexander, who attempted to muzzle infectious-disease expert Anthony Fauci from speaking publicly about the risks of coronavirus to children and pushed to modify scientific bulletins at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Alexander exited the health department last week after POLITICO and other news outlets reported on his behind-the-scenes role and the broader efforts of Caputo’s team to shape public health messaging to align with President Donald Trump’s own statements.
The White House in early 2020 overhauled its presidential personnel office, installing college seniors and other young staff perceived as loyal to Trump in agencies around the government. The personnel office also oversaw a series of loyalty tests with political appointees across the federal government this summer.
Granito, who was in the class of 2020 at the University of Michigan, was involved in political appointees’ recent scrutiny of CDC Deputy Director Anne Schuchat, a career civil servant. Caputo and his team raised concerns about Schuchat this spring after she publicly acknowledged missed opportunities in the nation’s response to the coronavirus.