WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - After a fraught White House meeting on Friday (Nov 22) about vaping and teen tobacco addiction, Donald Trump broke tensions by joking that he should fire his health secretary.
The president wasn't serious, six people familiar with the matter agreed. But the joke reflected frustration within the White House toward a conservative group opposed to a ban on flavoured vaping products, Americans for Tax Reform, that has publicly advocated for Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar to be replaced.
Trump hosted a meeting on the ban - proposed by Azar and the president in September but yet to be enacted - with public health advocates, vaping industry executives and key administration officials, including Azar, who sat at the president's immediate left.
Participants in the meeting debated the issue for almost an hour in front of reporters Trump invited to observe, sometimes with heated exchanges.
But once TV cameras had departed, Kellyanne Conway, the counsellor to the president who wields significant influence within the White House, confronted Christopher Butler, executive director of Americans for Tax Reform, according to four people who were in the room.
One of the group's staff members, Paul Blair, has publicly called for Azar's firing. Conway demanded that Butler explain the campaign against the health secretary.
Trump overheard and chimed in, saying "Fire Azar? Best idea I've heard all day," and jokingly elbowed the secretary, two people familiar with the exchange said.
Several other people in the room confirmed Trump overheard Conway's interrogation of Butler and joked about firing Azar, but varied on their recollections of his exact wording.
The president has wavered on whether to proceed with Azar's proposed ban of flavoured vaping products after a lobbying campaign by the vaping industry and groups including Americans for Tax Reform. But he has not expressed any serious discontent with the health secretary, people familiar with the matter say.
Earlier on Friday, in fact, he demonstrated his support for Azar in a series of tweets in which he said the two are preparing a proposal to allow American consumers to import drugs from lower-cost countries, challenging congressional Democrats to help him advance the initiative.
The White House and Azar declined to comment.
The six people familiar with the exchange asked not to be identified because it happened in private. None suggested Trump was serious, and Azar himself laughed.
Azar has the president's trust and is heading up a number of items on the president's agenda, a senior administration official said. People in the room were mocking the unserious suggestion that Azar should be sacked, the official said.
After hearing the exchange, another participant in the meeting said that she, too, had seen calls on the internet for Azar to be fired.
The health secretary moved on, laying out next steps in consideration of the ban on flavoured vaping products. The administration would review what everyone at the meeting said as it continues to weigh options, he said.
A Health and Human Services spokesman referred questions to the White House, which referred to a readout summary of the meeting and declined to respond further.
The portion of the meeting opened to reporters included lively debate between stakeholders including groups representing public health advocates and paediatricians, e-cigarette companies and vaping industry executives.
Standing next to Trump in the Oval office in September, Azar announced a plan to ban all vaping flavours other than tobacco out of concern about use of the products by children. But vaping industry groups have said the ban make it harder for adults to quit smoking and also would lead to job losses, and some advocates for vaping have told Trump it would cost him votes in 2020.
Trump said on Friday that he intends to raise the legal age to purchase vaping products to 21. The administration has also indicated that at least some vaping flavors are likely to be banned, though it is considering measures to avoid job losses in the industry.
After earlier advocating to ban all vaping flavours, Azar echoed Trump during Friday's meeting and didn't express his own preference. "Thank you for your work and leadership on this issue. Your attention to it demonstrates your deep commitment to Americans' health and, in particular, the health and well-being of our youth," Azar told Trump, while reporters were present.
The White House hasn't given a timeline for a final decision.
Trump left the room in a buoyant mood, one senior administration official said, and turned to Azar. "Great meeting!" he told the health secretary.