WASHINGTON – No, the Trump administration did not put a professional dog breeder from Dallas in charge of COVID-19 response.
Yes, the chief of staff at the Department of Health and Human Services briefly owned a family business raising Labradoodles. But he’s also served three administrations in high level posts at HHS, the White House and the Pentagon.
Colleagues who hired Harrison and served with him in government were appalled to see him disparaged Thursday as a mere “dog breeder,” as if Joe Exotic had catapulted from tiger king to head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“This is so silly. He went home and worked in a family business,” said Jack Kalavritinos, who served with Harrison at HHS during the administrations of both George W. Bush and President Donald Trump, most recently as director for intergovernmental and external affairs, working on the opioid crisis and drug prices.
“Brian was a no-brainer pick,” said another colleague, Michael Reilly, who hired Harrison for his first job at HHS under Bush. “His private sector experience is irrelevant.…He was a complete known commodity who had extensive experience.”
Trump’s irritation with Harrison’s current boss, Secretary Alex Azar, has been apparent for months and some confidants suspect that he’s has gotten caught in the crossfire of a classic Washington ritual: finger pointing.
On Wednesday afternoon, the Wall St. Journal published a lengthy story about Azar’s role in the COVID-19 response titled, “Health Chief’s Early Missteps Set Back Coronavirus Response.”
The story mentions that Azar “relied heavily on his chief of staff, Brian Harrison” and that “before returning to the agency in 2018, Mr. Harrison ran businesses in Texas building homes and breeding labradoodles.”
A few hours later, Reuters published its own scathing review of Azar’s performance, with a far more eye-popping headline: “Special Report: Former Labradoodle breeder was tapped to lead U.S. pandemic task force.”
That story spawned a torrent of other similarly mocking stories and social media posts. Thursday afternoon, the Democratic Party joined the pile-on.
“Only in the Trump administration could a dog breeder find himself leading a pandemic containment strategy,” said DNC deputy war room director Daniel Wessel. “It would be laughable if not for the tens of thousands of Americans who have lost their lives and the tens of millions who are out of work.”
Except that it’s all vastly overblown.
Brian Harrison, chief of staff at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.(HHS.gov)
Harrison was not available to discuss the uproar. His wife gave birth last week and the baby was readmitted to the hospital on Thursday.
By all accounts of those who’ve worked with him, Harrison is a serious public servant with deep experience. And he was never in charge of pandemic containment strategy.
He was, rather, assigned a typical role for a cabinet secretary’s chief of staff, serving as aide de camp on a task force run by the boss himself – until Trump stripped that job from Azar and assigned the responsibility to Vice President Mike Pence.
With experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci and CDC director Dr. Robert Redfield at the table, “your job is to keep the trains moving. It’s not being the guy who comes up with the idea about what HHS does about testing,” said Peter Urbanowicz, Harrison’s predecessor as chief of staff under Azar. “People have this idea that it’s some kind of czar job. You’re staff.”
The idea that “you had a guy who was a dog breeder in charge of the response to the pandemic” is factually inaccurate in every way possible, agreed Reilly, who has hired Harrison four times in 15 years, in government and the private sector.
In any case, “Brian is a well-known commodity at the highest levels of that department…. Brian’s experience in the dog business and building houses was completely irrelevant to why he was hired at the department,” he said.
The website for Harrison’s former business, Dallas Labradoodles, says the family started it after learning about the breed in 2011. A hobby eventually turned into a business in 2015.
“After years of breeding in the Houston area under the name `Houston Labradoodles,’ they relocated to Ellis County,” south of Dallas, and renamed the operation.
Australian Labradoodles are a mix of Poodle, Cocker Spaniel and Labrador Retriever, and they are adorable – non-allergenic and well suited to training as a service dog. Puppies sell for $2,700, plus tax. Harrison and his wife sold the business two years ago when he returned to government as deputy chief of staff to Azar.
This was not, as some news stories have alleged, a vocation that Harrison “parlayed” into the top job at HHS, a vast cabinet department with a $1.3 trillion budget – larger than the economic output of all but 14 countries, pre-crisis.
Most of that massive budget goes to Medicare and Medicaid, with only about $95 billion in so-called discretionary spending that includes CDC, the National Institutes of Health, Food and Drug Administration, and Indian Health Service.
Harrison graduated from Texas A&M in 2004 with a degree in economics, and headed to Washington.
He soon landed at the Social Security Administration.
In 2005, Bush was pushing to alter the traditional retirement system by letting workers invest some of their payroll taxes into private accounts. Harrison was working on the policy. So was Reilly, associate deputy secretary at HHS for most of Bush’s presidency.
“At the time, everybody was all hands on deck,” Reilly said.
That’s how they met.
When a job came open in the deputy secretary’s office, Reilly and a colleague interviewed Harrison and “we hired him on the spot.… As someone who has hired him four separate times, he’s outstanding, disciplined, really thoughtful. He’s just good at what he does.”
Azar served as HHS general counsel during Bush’s first term and as deputy secretary in the second term. Harrison new job put him on Azar’s staff, until he was lured away by a job at the White House, working for Vice President Dick Cheney.
It was clearly a promotion. Kalavritinos called it a “loss to HHS but a great thing for Brian’s career.”
Also for his personal life.
Harrison and his wife, Tara Napier Harrison, met at the White House in 2005 and wed in 2011.
She worked in legislative affairs at the Defense Department throughout the second Bush term, and in the Pentagon press office for two years of the Obama era before going to work for BP, her current employer.
Harrison worked at the Pentagon after his stint with Cheney.
Reilly, running a public relations firm at that point, hired his friend to serve as chief of staff.
Then, Tara’s dad fell ill and died.
The family moved back to Texas.
From Houston, Harrison continued to work for Reilly’s firm and the newlyweds got interested in breeding dogs as a hobby. When Tara developed medical problems, Harrison needed more time with the family. They moved to Midlothian, in Ellis County, just south of Dallas, where he could work with his own dad — Ed Harrison, who ran for Congress twice against Dallas Democrat Martin Frost —in a home-building business, Harrison Homes.
Trump’s first HHS secretary, Tom Price, was forced out after just seven months over excessive use of charter and military airplanes.
When Trump nominated Azar, the band got back together.
Azar tapped Reilly to shepherd his confirmation, and Reilly turned to Harrison. Both played senators in mock confirmation hearings.
For chief of staff, Azar picked Peter Urbanowicz, a healthcare consultant from Dallas and his deputy general counsel at HHS in the first Bush term. The only doubt about whether Harrison would get the deputy chief of staff post was whether he’d be willing to move back to Washington.
When Urbanowicz left last June, Harrison was the obvious successor.
“Brian is a really good guy and he’s a smart guy,” he said.
He and Harrison worked closely during the border crisis that was raging this time last year. At its height, HHS shelters were housing over 15,000 migrant children who had crossed into the United States unaccompanied by an adult.
Throughout the summer of 2018 and into 2019, Urbanowicz or Harrison, or both, would convene an early morning meeting with representatives from various agencies in charge of the placement and movement of migrant children.
As during the Trump administration’s push to overhaul prescription drug pricing, or the COVID-19 crisis, Harrison’s role wasn’t to come up with ideas but to organize meetings, synthesize proposals, work out disagreements, and liaise with the White House and other agencies.
“He was excellent,” Urbanowicz said. “He’s methodical, he’s organized and just does a good job.”