WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Wednesday hosted an emotional roundtable discussion with survivors of opioid abuse, an epidemic he said is “crippling” the country.
Trump named New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, seated to the president’s right at the White House meeting, as chairman of a new commission on drug addiction.
Christie, a former GOP presidential primary rival who became an early endorser of Trump’s bid, will be a liaison to local and state officials, medical experts and drug addicts, the president said.
“Solving the drug crisis will require cooperation across government and across society, including early intervention to keep America’s youth off this destructive path,” Trump said.
The president blamed illegal drugs brought across the border, noting he has beefed up law enforcement to stop drug cartels.
The proliferation of heroin use, among other opioids, has devastated suburban communities.
In Suffolk County, the number of opioid-related deaths in 2016 — at least 276 — outpaced the number in the previous year, according to the most recently available statistics from the medical examiner’s office.
In Nassau County, there had been 146 such fatalities in 2016, as of November, and that figure was lower than in 2015 for the county, according to the medical examiner’s office.
Opioid overdose is the leading cause of accidental death nationally and in New York City, surpassing motor vehicle accidents, according to New York City’s health department. In the city, there were 937 unintentional drug-overdose deaths in 2015, compared with 800 in 2014, and heroin-linked deaths rose 158 percent between 2010 and 2015, figures show.
Also in attendance at Trump’s listening session were his homeland security, education and veterans affairs secretaries, as well as Mariano Rivera, the retired Yankees pitching great who was representing his philanthropic foundation.
Vanessa Vitolo, a recovering addict who has worked with Christie on advocacy in New Jersey, shared with Trump a stirring personal account of her struggles.
A dependence on painkillers following an injury led her to heroin use and homelessness in Atlantic City, and her mother would drive the streets searching for her, Vitolo said.
“There comes a point where you feel as if you have nothing, you already ruined everything, so there’s no point to get sober,” she said, urging those struggling with drugs to fight because “there is a tomorrow, and there is a day after that.”
Also Wednesday, Senate Democrats, led by Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), sent a letter to Trump expressing a willingness to work with him to improve the health care system, provided that he abandon his quest to repeal Obamacare.
“We urge you to use your executive authority to support a stable, competitive insurance marketplace,” they wrote. They condemned Trump’s recent Twitter remarks on waiting for Obamacare to “explode,” saying millions would be hurt.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer responded, “I think they understand his principles. We need to repeal the law and replace it with something better.”
The press secretary said he questions whether Democrats will “understand that they are the ones who are going to be responsible for owning the current policies that are making so many Americans struggle.”
The Obamacare-repeal bill Trump supported was withdrawn last Friday from the House floor for lack of sufficient Republican votes, but Trump said Tuesday at a White House reception for senators that he will quickly make a deal on health care and it will be an “easy one.”
Spicer said Wednesday that Trump was being “lighthearted.”