Six months ago, members of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS were wondering whether they should stay or go. This week, the Trump administration effectively made that choice for the 16 remaining members—by firing them outright.
In June, six members of the council had resigned their posts, writing in Newsweek that President Trump “simply does not care” about people living with the virus. Current and former members of PACHA then told The Daily Beast that many others had considered resigning, with some opting to keep working from within and others deciding that policy differences—like the debate over the Affordable Care Act—were too vast to overcome.
This Wednesday, as the Washington Blade first reported, the remaining 16 members received an overnight letter from FedEx, dated Dec. 21, or six days earlier, informing them of their termination. And after a year of indications that this administration may not be taking the fight against HIV/AIDS seriously—like the lack of a director for the Office of National AIDS policy or Trump’s reported grumbling that a group of Haitian visa-holders “all have AIDS”—some ex-PACHA members believe their late Christmas present sends a hurtful message..
“It now feels like retribution,” Gabriel Maldonado, CEO of TruEvolution and former PACHA member, told The Daily Beast. “The timing feels like retribution, not the dismissal.”
In a statement issued Wednesday, PACHA Executive Director Kaye Hayes maintained that the mass firing was not unusual—and that the fired members will be replaced.
“Changing the makeup of federal advisory committee members is a common occurrence during administration changes,” Hayes wrote. “The Obama administration dismissed the George W. Bush administration appointees to PACHA in order to bring in new voices. All PACHA members are eligible to apply to serve on the new council that will be convened in 2018.”
However, as ex-fired PACHA members pointed out to The Daily Beast, the Obama administration dismissed the previous administration’s appointees at the start of his presidency rather than a year into it. In fact, Maldonado told The Daily Beast that many PACHA members were anticipating being shown the door when Trump first took office.“We were ready for that,” he said. “We were completely expecting that. It was normal. We weren’t feeling emotional at the time about the prospect of being dismissed at the beginning of the year.”
Instead, the PACHA members who didn’t resign held a meeting on Aug. 30 and continued doing their work, only to learn about their firing from letters delivered in the middle of the holiday season—or, in Dr. Patrick Sullivan’s case, from early news reports about those letters.
Sullivan, an epidemiologist at Emory University, told The Daily Beast that the letter he received—after already having seen the news of his firing—was “fairly to the point,” thanking him for his service before informing him that it was over. But Sullivan, while acknowledging concerns about the enduring “institutional memory” of PACHA, does not feel apocalyptic about the sudden clearing of its ranks.
“The science is quite clear, so I hope and expect that the next PACHA will retain that grounding in science and proven prevention methods,” he said in an interview.
Others fear that an internal push for ineffective abstinence-only approaches to the HIV/AIDS epidemic may take hold. Lambda Legal senior attorney Scott Schoettes, one of the six PACHA members who resigned in June, opined on Twitter that the White House is “eliminating [the] few remaining people willing to push back against harmful policies, like abstinence-only sex ed.” And Maldonado told The Daily Beast that the delayed mass firing suggests to him that a course change might be coming soon.
“Why would you not bring over that institutional knowledge unless you’re looking for a reset?” he asked.
Cecilia Chung, senior director of strategic projects for the Transgender Law Center, was not one of the six PACHA members who resigned in June but she did allow her term to expire after the last meeting in late August. In an interview about her final two months at PACHA, Chung told The Daily Beast that she “shared the same sentiment” as those who left earlier in the summer—and that her concerns were only amplified by Trump’s anti-transgender actions.
“There were no indications whatsoever that the president would focus his presidency on eradicating HIV,” she said. “There were no indications that President Trump actually supports the trans community whatsoever. So it becomes very discouraging to be serving under an administration, giving advice to a president who doesn’t even acknowledge your existence.”
Transgender people—especially black transgender people—are at disproportionately high risk for new HIV infections, notes the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. So it is even more alarming to advocates like Chung that the CDC was reportedly told to avoid using the word “transgender” in annual budget preparations. And anti-LGBT actions like those—combined with the Trump administration’s perceived inaction in the fight against the HIV/AIDS epidemic—do not give Chung much hope that the new PACHA will also be an improved one.
“We currently have a national strategy to address the HIV epidemic,” she told The Daily Beast, referring to a policy document first released in July 2015. “Ideally, we would like to see President Trump continue this strategy or give it the support it needs for it to actually succeed but, right now, I think all the indications are saying otherwise.”
Both Brown and Maldonado believe that local work around the HIV/AIDS epidemic will become more important than ever if PACHA takes a turn for the worse.
“We were trying to be nice,” Brown said. “We were trying to play nice with those people. We were trying to use our inside voices. But now we have to go outside and scream and holler and take care of the communities that are most affected by HIV/AIDS.”