Murphy Vetoes Judge Leifman’s Appointment, Pushing Popular Television Doctor and Early Trump Backer Instead

Rep. Murphy’s choice defended Trump describing him as the “embodiment of healthy narcissism.”

(3-26-17) Miami-Dade Judge Steve Leifman appeared to be a shoo-in to become the new Assistant Secretary for mental health and substance abuse in Washington.

Until he wasn’t.

About ten days ago, Leifman got knocked to the bottom of the list even though HHS Secretary Tom Price had approved of him and he was in the midst of a successful White House vetting.

Who stopped Leifman’s appointment? Republican Pennsylvania Representative Tim Murphy.

From the start, Murphy has insisted the newly created post be held either by a psychiatrist or psychologist and because Murphy was responsible for successfully drafting and pushing his Helping Families In Mental Health Crisis Act through Congress last December, he’d earned veto rights.

“Murphy is considered the Republican’s mental health go-to guy,” one source told me. “He’s who everyone in his party turns too.”

Some on Capitol Hill wondered if Murphy blocked Leifman’s appointment because the judge began steam-rolling ahead in the Senate, without anyone showing Murphy the respect that he felt was due him in the process. Nearly every mental health organization was enthusiastically supporting Leifman, who has gained national prominence and popularity because of his efforts to promote jail diversion and community based treatment. As I’ve written before, it would have been difficult to find anyone who was better qualified for the new job than Judge Leifman – a fact widely agreed on in Washington.

Others said Rep. Murphy worried that appointing a former public defender and criminal court judge would send the wrong message to the public by putting someone from the criminal justice system in charge of mental health and substance abuse services.

That argument, if true, seems odd if rumors about Rep. Murphy’s preference are true. Murphy is reportedly pushing Secretary Price and the White House to appoint Dr. Michael Welner as the first Assistant Secretary.

The announcement is expected this week.

Dr. Welner is best-known for his television appearances on news and talk shows and testimony that he has given in several high profile cases as a paid prosecution witness. Here is how a magazine profile called Evil Genius described him:

Welner is a prominent and occasionally controversial forensic psychiatrist who has interviewed some of the most high-profile criminals of the past two decades, generally on behalf of the prosecution. He argued that Andrea Yates, the woman who drowned her five children in a bathtub in 2001, was legally sane; that Brian David Mitchell, the self-proclaimed prophet who kidnapped Elizabeth Smart, was legally sane; that Omar Khadr, the teenager who became Guantanamo’s youngest prisoner, was not tortured and had a high risk of continuing jihad activities if released.

Dr. Welner has focused his career exclusively on forensic psychiatry. He is chair of The Forensic Panel, a group of psychiatrists and other mental health experts – that he brought together – who hire themselves out as professional witnesses in court cases. He is also the primary author of what he calls “The Depravity Standard,” which attempts to standardize for judges and jurors what the appropriate level of depravity is for horrific crimes. (You can take the depravity standard survey here.)

“He’s always been popular with Republicans because he nearly always claims mental illnesses are not an excuse for criminal acts,” one Capitol Hill source told me. “Rep. Murphy has always thought highly of him.”

Apparently, the White House does too.

An early and enthusiastic supporter of President Trump, Dr. Welner defended the president on CNN during the election when a host raised questions about Trump’s mental health, specifically if the president was narcissistic.

Although psychiatrists are discouraged from diagnosing anyone who they have not personally evaluated, Dr. Welner said the president was the “embodiment of healthy narcissism.”

Asked directly if Trump was a narcissist, Welner responded: “He’s an exceptionalist and there’s something about American exceptionalism at its core that sees itself excellent relative to the world and he sees himself excellent compared to the people that he competes with.”

He added that Trump’s attitude was the “embodiment of healthy narcissism, a belief that you are better.” He cited Trump’s “boldness to succeed because he dares” as an example of “where his narcissism is healthy.”

Some mental health groups are continuing to rally around  Dr. Ellie McCance-Katz, the chief medical officer for the state Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals in Rhode Island, for the job.

She became SAMHSA’s first chief medical officer in 2013 but left after only two years. In a critical essay published in the Psychiatric Times, Dr. McCance-Katz wrote that SAMHSA’s Center for Mental Health Services, which administers federal mental health programs, ignored serious mental illnesses and evidenced based practices in favor of feel-good recovery programs that were politically popular but did little to help persons diagnosed with debilitating disorders. She claimed that SAMHSA was openly hostile toward the use of psychiatric medicine, didn’t focus on helping the seriously mentally ill, and questioned whether bipolar disorder and schizophrenia were even real, arguing that psychosis is just a “different way of thinking for someone experiencing stress.”

There has been some talk of naming Dr. Welner to the top job and appointing Dr. McCance-Katz as his second-in-command as chief medical officer.

Whoever is appointed – whether it will be one of the names making the rounds or someone completely new – what is known is that no one will be appointed unless he/she meets Rep. Murphy’s seal of approval.


About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.