Reported pick as next White House chief of staff met with Hunter Biden repeatedly

As White House COVID coordinator, Jeff Zients scapegoated unvaccinated people, implying they could be singled out with new lockdowns, and made repeated false statements about vaccines.

Published: January 25, 2023 6:06pm

Updated: January 25, 2023 11:19pm

Jeff Zients largely dodged public scrutiny as the Biden White House's COVID-19 response coordinator as COVID adviser Anthony Fauci and the president himself drew attention for false and misleading statements, declaring COVID's natural origin settled and vaccines foolproof against the virus, respectively.

With his expected return to the highest echelon of the White House as chief of staff, Zients is now taking fire from all ideological directions for his meetings with Hunter Biden, scapegoating of people who resist COVID vaccination and history with healthcare companies accused of billing fraud.

"Quite possible this is the day Ron DeSantis became president," tweeted Revolving Door Project Executive Director Jeff Hauser, whose organization wrote a blistering profile of Zients after his hasty exit as COVID czar last year for The American Prospect.

Zients met with the younger Biden at least three times in the first half of 2016 as his father prepared to leave the vice presidency, according to emails from Hunter Biden's abandoned laptop verified by Fox News. The first two meetings took place at the vice presidential residence and included the elder Biden. 

The meetings also variously included former lobbyist and current White House counselor Steve Richetti; then-Office of Science and Technology Policy Director Eric Lander; billionaire World Economic Forum member and Carlyle Group founder David Rubenstein, the recurring host for Joe Biden's Nantucket vacations; biotech investor Richard Klausner; and Atlantic Media Chairman David Bradley, publisher of the 166-year-old magazine. 

Zients, Bradley and Lander also served as board members of the nonprofit Biden Cancer Initiative set up by Joe and Jill Biden. 

The Atlantic called Zients a "relative outsider in Bidenworld" known for cultivating "an aura of humility" and positioning himself as a "mere facilitator." It praised him for "masterfully" rolling out COVID vaccines, though he "sometimes sputtered" against a pandemic evolving around them.

Rather than indulge the possibility that massive, one-size-fits-all vaccination efforts might turbocharge evasive viral variants, Zients singled out for opprobrium those who opted against an inoculation that the CDC's own research found provides shorter and weaker protection against reinfection than natural immunity.

Just a month after CDC Director Rochelle Walensky urged vaccinated Americans to resume masking amid the Delta variant wave, which produced comparable viral loads regardless of vaccination, Zients claimed "we all know [vaccination] is the best line of defense" against Delta at a White House press conference.

He praised large employers and universities that followed President Biden's lead by mandating vaccinations for their workers and students, falsely claiming they were protecting "families and friends ... neighbors and colleagues ... communities and our country."

Zients demanded holdouts "get off the sidelines, step up and do your part" by getting vaccinated and imposing mandates to "protect your communities and help end the pandemic." President Biden would go on to repeatedly and falsely claim that vaccination stops transmission.

Zients ramped up the rhetoric as the Omicron wave blew through vaccinated Americans, including those newly boosted, while showing less severity than previous strains, particularly Delta. 

Citing "effective vaccines" for ages 5 and up and boosters for adults, Zients said "we're not going to shut down our economy in any way" at a Dec. 15, 2021 press conference

Two days later he made plain that shutdowns were on the table for those who aren't vaccinated, preemptively blaming them for hospitalization crunches despite the fact that hospitals before COVID routinely ran near capacity, causing a crunch in the severe flu season of 2017-2018. (The next two seasons were relatively mild, leaving "dry tinder" for COVID to ravage.)

"We are intent on not letting Omicron disrupt work and school for the vaccinated," and for the rest, "you're looking at a winter of severe illness and death for yourselves, your families, and the hospitals you may soon overwhelm," Zients said Dec. 17, 2021.

The World Socialist Web Site, the online arm of the global Trotskyite movement, denounced Zients a year ago for "menacingly threaten[ing] the unvaccinated." 

It pejoratively credited him with the administration's "vaccine-only" approach that rules out future lockdowns, a "policy of mass death" that had already surpassed the COVID toll under President Trump's pre-vaccine administration.

Progressives have long eyed Zients warily for his background in consulting and healthcare, which the Obama administration put to use to fix the debacle.

After the incoming administration tapped Zients as COVID czar in late 2020, Democratic consulting firm Saguaro Strategies confirmed to Politico that it edited Zients' Wikipedia page to put his corporate past in a more progressive light. 

Having joined Facebook's board after the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Zients left "over differences with company leadership over governance and its policies around political discourse," the page said without citing any public statement from Zients.

The Revolving Door Project warned President Biden his legacy was at risk with Zients as chief of staff. "Jeff Zients has become astonishingly rich by profiteering in healthcare," it said Sunday.

Since stepping down from his role as White House COVID response coordinator in March, Zients had returned to the White House "in a low-profile position to work on staffing matters for the remainder of Biden's first term," the Associated Press reported.

The White House did not respond to queries seeking Zients' response to the new scrutiny he's facing, including the specific discussions at the Hunter Biden meetings and how he now views his statements about the consequences of not getting vaccinated.

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