The Biden administration’s top science adviser has apologised to staff for what an internal White House investigation reportedly described as “demeaning or abrasive” interactions with subordinates in his office.
Dr Eric Lander issued a short apology for his conduct, acknowledging that he had “spoken to colleagues within [the Office of Science and Technology Policy] in a disrespectful or demeaning way”. The apology came on Friday, Politico first reported, after the news outlet contacted the office with questions about an internal White House investigation that had uncovered his conduct.
According to the report, Dr Lander exhibited a pattern of speaking to colleagues and subordinates harshly or in a disrespectful manner, in some cases while others were present. The conduct allegedly extended to mistreatment of his former general counsel, Rachel Wallace.
During an internal White House briefing last month on the report’s findings, a top staffer in charge of personnel matters at the presidential office and residence explained that there was “credible evidence of instances of multiple women having complained to other staff about negative interactions with Dr Lander, where he spoke to them in a demeaning or abrasive way in front of other staff”, according to Politico, which obtained an audio recording of the briefing.
The Independent has reached out to the White House for comment on the report’s findings and whether Dr Lander would face any ramifications for his alleged conduct. The top adviser declined through his office to comment to Politico, and is set to appear before a House subcommittee on Tuesday for a hearing related to the administration’s pandemic response.
A spokesperson told The Independent that “White House leadership met with Dr Lander to discuss the seriousness of the matter and the President’s expectation that all staff interactions be conducted with respect” following the report’s completion.
“The White House is committed to maintaining a safe and respectful work environment in which employees can focus their time and energy on working for the American people. The President put in place a first-of-its-kind Safe and Respectful Workplace Policy to maintain a healthy work environment, and has been clear that conduct that is inconsistent with that policy will not be tolerated, and will be addressed appropriately,” they said.
“A full and thorough investigation was conducted pursuant to the Safe and Respectful Workplace Policy,” the spokesperson continued in an email. “White House leadership met with Dr Lander to discuss the seriousness of the matter and the President’s expectation that all staff interactions be conducted with respect. We take this incredibly seriously and we are taking swift action to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.”
Dr Lander did apologise for his actions in an all-staff email on Friday, and acknowledged the report’s conclusion.
“I understand that some of you have been asked about this, and I thought it was important to write directly to you,” said Dr Lander.
“I am deeply sorry for my conduct. I especially want to apologize to those of you who I treated poorly or were present at the time,” his email reportedly continued. “It’s my responsibility to set a respectful tone for our community. It’s clear that I have not lived up to this responsibility. I have spoken to colleagues within OSTP in a disrespectful or demeaning way.”
Dr Lander has received much less attention for his role on the White House’s pandemic response team than have other members such as the CDC’s Dr Rochelle Walensky and Dr Anthony Fauci of NIAID, both of whom have been the target of furious criticism and anger from conservatives who have chafed at public health guidelines put in place to slow the spread of Covid-19, including their support for vaccinations.
A spokesperson for his office did confirm that Dr Lander as well as the office itself would be required to “undertake a number of actions to the correct the behavior and ensure that all OSTP staff are supported and aware of channels for reporting and violations of the Safe and Respectful Workplace Policy.”
“The White House will monitor for compliance with these requirements,” added the spokesperson, who did not confirm or indicate any disciplinary action against the Cabinet official.
Ms Wallace, who was identified by the report as a top target of Dr Lander’s misconduct, told Politico in a statement that the apology “did not come close to addressing the full extent of his egregious behavior,” and added that it was “disingenuous”. She has alleged that she and others were marginalised and mistreated due to their gender, which the White House investigation denied. An OTSP spokesperson said that it “did not find credible evidence of gender-based discrimination”.
The former general counsel contested that finding to Politico.
Dr Lander “retaliated against staff for speaking out and asking questions by calling them names, disparaging them, embarrassing them in front of their peers, laughing at them, shunning them, taking away their duties, and replacing them or driving them out of the agency,” said Ms Wallace, adding that “[n]umerous women have been left in tears, traumatized, and feeling vulnerable and isolated” as a result of his behaviour.
She herself was “excluded from “meetings, conversations and assignments, in violation of the safe and respectful workplace policy,” according to the audio recording obtained by Politico, but the investigation did not deem that to be a result of sexism.
President Joe Biden pledged upon taking office that he would fire any employee found to have mistreated staff “on the spot”.
“I’m not joking when I say this: If you’re ever working with me and I hear you treat another with disrespect, talk down to someone, I promise you I will fire you on the spot,” he said in January during a virtual swearing-in ceremony for staffers.
The administration has already faced criticism for breaking that promise after TJ Ducklo, a communications staffer in the White House, was revealed to have made misogynistic comments to a female reporter and threatened to “destroy” her if she reported on an inappropriate sexual relationship he was engaged in with another reporter, Alexi McCammond of Axios, while she was reporting on the Biden campaign and he was a primary spokesperson for it.
Mr Ducklo later resigned over the incident after a brief suspension and the White House claiming to have handled the issue by assigning him to work that did not involve contact with the media outlet for which the woman he threatened was an employee.