Lander’s resignation constitutes the highest-profile departure from the president’s team to date — his office has cabinet-level status — and a black eye for Biden, who had pledged early on that he would have a zero-tolerance policy when it came to bullying.
“The President accepted Dr. Eric Lander’s resignation letter this evening, with gratitude for his work at OSTP on the pandemic, the cancer moonshot, climate change, and other key priorities,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki. “He knows that Dr. Lander will continue to make important contributions to the scientific community in the years ahead.”
POLITICO was first to report that the White House had launched a two month investigation into Lander that found “credible evidence” that he bullied his then-general counsel, Rachel Wallace. The investigation also concluded that there was “credible evidence of disrespectful interactions with staff by Dr. Lander and OSTP leadership,” according to a recording of a January White House briefing on the investigation’s findings. In addition, 14 current and former OSTP staffers shared descriptions of a toxic work environment under Lander where they say Lander frequently bullied, cut off and dismissed subordinates. Several shared specific accusations that he belittled and demeaned women subordinates in particular.
On Monday, Psaki told reporters the administration was implementing changes to assure a better workplace culture at OSTP and that they’d be monitoring Lander’s conduct more closely.
“The president has been crystal clear with all of us about his high expectations of how he and his staff should be creating a respectful work environment,” Psaki said.
But behind the scenes, senior staff at OSTP were struggling with how to move forward after the news of the internal White House investigation and litany of complaints from fellow staffers became public. The office’s chief of staff, Marc Aidinoff, kicked off a Monday morning meeting with other senior OSTP officials by addressing the POLITICO article.
“I really struggled with what to say here,” Aidinoff said, according to an audio recording of the meeting shared with POLITICO. “There were some things in the article that were surprises to me, and some that, you know, weren’t.”
“I think one of the many, many troublesome pieces is, is the way in which … the current work culture at OSTP prevents the work from happening,” he continued, adding, “I don’t want there to be any sense that that the behavior of the staff talking to reporters when things [come] to a boiling point is the problem or that, you know, there’s anger from me in any way towards those who sort of felt this got to the point that talking to the press was the appropriate next step.”
By Monday evening, Aidinoff had sent an all-staff email acknowledging that the “behavior described” in the article was “not acceptable” and the office would communicate further with employees about steps being taken to “move forward as a community.”
But in the face of growing criticism over his decision to keep Lander in the job, the White House gradually realized that the situation was untenable, said one person with knowledge of the matter, who characterized the resignation as a mutual decision.
Later that evening, the White House informed representative Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) that Lander would no longer be testing before her Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health regarding biomedical research, which had been scheduled for Tuesday. The hearing is focused on a Biden proposal to establish a $6.5 billion health agency dubbed the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health. The widely popular proposal has stalled amid budget battles and sparring over the president’s Build Back Better initiative.
Lander was also dropped as a speaker before the American Association for the Advancement of Science, where he was to appear for the nonprofit group’s annual meeting next week.
A luminary in the scientific community, Lander won a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant at the age of 30, served on the board of the cancer organization Biden spearheaded, and earned numerous accolades for his work mapping the human genome. But he also was a controversial figure, owing to a reputation for having a nasty streak and not giving proper credit to women in his field.
Adam Cancryn and Sarah Owermohle contributed to this report.