The Washington Post, more cautiously, omitted Conway from its headline about the event, but did write in the body of the story: “Kellyanne Conway, one of President Trump’s top advisers, has been tasked with overseeing White House initiatives to combat opioid abuse, Sessions said. She attended the announcement Wednesday, standing off to the side.”
On Thursday, The Daily Caller reported that Conway had told them there is no czar, and that Sessions had been referring to her informal role as the White House’s point person on the crisis.
It would not be a crazy thing for the White House to task an official to coordinate work on the opioid crisis. The tragic surge of fatalities raises issues that cross departmental lines: law enforcement, mental health, Medicaid administration, prescription-drug regulation, and international relations. The harrowing problem also requires close cooperation between the federal government and the states.
Complex portfolios like that have been managed by special offices within the Executive Office of the President since the 1930s. The people who head these offices have been nicknamed “czars” since the early 1970s, when President Nixon tasked former Colorado Governor John Love to run the White House office on energy policy. Under Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and Bush, there have been also been “drug czars,” “inflation czars,” and “AIDS czars” among many, many others.
In the past, these czars have been selected for one of two principal reasons: outstanding knowledge of the underlying policy issues or shrewd understanding of the bureaucratic processes of government. President Obama’s first cybersecurity coordinator, Howard Schmidt, had worked for 40 years in the field of information security. He had previously served as chief of information security at Microsoft. He chaired the critical infrastructure protection board for President George W. Bush. Nixon’s drug czar, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, may have lacked such specialized understanding of narcotics enforcement—but no student of government has ever better understood how bureaucracies function or fail to function.
Kellyanne Conway is neither of those things, obviously enough. A pollster before she joined the Trump campaign, she has emerged there as its most brazen and shameless cable-TV talker.
It’s very difficult to imagine what relevant assets Conway could bring to the opioid czar job, even if it existed.
Despite Glenn Beck’s ominous warnings back in the Obama days, when he darkly depicted Obama’s “czars” as lawless all-powerful gauleiters, what matters is the office, not the head. No czarship, no czar.
There is no opioid office within the White House for Conway to head. There is an Office of National Drug Control Policy. Trump has not appointed a director. His first nominee, former Representative Tom Marino, withdrew on October 27 after The Washington Post and 60 Minutes publicized his long career in Congress of working to cripple DEA enforcement against narcotics distributors. The office remains headless all these weeks later, despite Trump’s language of “national emergency.”