Emails show Trump interfered in CDC effort to warn Americans of Covid-19

New emails and documents released by a congressional committee investigating the Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic show that top White House officials interfered in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s efforts to warn Americans about Covid-19 in order to protect the president’s re-election effort.

The House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis has conducted interviews over the last several months about how former President Donald Trump and his closest confidantes, including former White House adviser Scott Atlas and son-in-law Jared Kushner, tried to steer the course of the federal response, sidestepping the interagency process.

The documents reveal how Trump appointees tried to undermine the work of scientists and career staff at the CDC to control messaging about the spread of the virus and the dangers of infection.

As CDC scientists tried to report on Covid-19, White House officials attempted to downplay the significance of the spread of the virus, putting American lives at greater risk rather than acknowledge bad news that might harm the re-election campaign.

Rep. James E. Clyburn, chairman of the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, renewed his call for Dr. Robert R. Redfield, former Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, to appear for a transcribed interview regarding the prior administration’s failed response to the coronavirus crisis.

“Our investigations have found that the Trump Administration engaged in a persistent pattern of political interference in the pandemic response and took actions that allowed the virus to spread in an attempt to advance former President Trump’s electoral prospects,” said Clyburn in a letter to Redfield.

Clyburn also requested transcribed interviews with three additional senior CDC officials who had responsibility over key aspects of the nation’s pandemic response. These requests come as the Select Subcommittee releases new evidence of Trump Administration officials’ repeated efforts to thwart the CDC’s scientific work during the pandemic following interviews with more than half a dozen current and former CDC and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) officials

“The Trump Administration’s use of the pandemic to advance political goals manifested itself most acutely in its efforts to manipulate and undermine CDC’s scientific work,” Clyburn wrote to Dr. Redfield. “.Through its investigations, the Select Subcommittee has uncovered a staggering pattern of political interference from Trump Administration officials in critical aspects of CDC’s pandemic response efforts.”

“I am very troubled by the concerted attempts made by White House officials and other political appointees to interfere with CDC’s public health guidance during the pandemic,” Clyburn wrote. “Questions remain regarding your knowledge and role in these efforts, including whether you assented to the changes and whether you took any steps to try to ensure accurate scientific guidance was provided to the American people.”

Recent interviews with former CDC Principal Deputy Director Anne Schuchat, former CDC Director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases Nancy Messonnier, former White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Deborah Birx, and other current and former officials have shed new light on the persistent pattern of political interference in the pandemic response by Trump White House officials and partisan appointees.

The Select Subcommittee adds to previously reported findings with new evidence showing:

Following CDC Briefing that “Angered” then-President Trump, the White House Blocked CDC Briefings and Media Appearances for Months

Dr. Messonnier confirmed that Trump was angered by a briefing she led on February 25, 2020, during which she accurately warned the public about the risks posed by the coronavirus. 

Dr. Messonnier informed the Select Subcommittee that she received phone calls from then-HHS Secretary Alex Azar and Dr. Redfield following this briefing and that she felt “upset” by these conversations. 

Multiple officials confirmed that the Trump White House blocked CDC’s requests to conduct public briefings for more than three months following the February 25 briefing—a period that coincided with the rapid explosion in coronavirus cases across the country. 

For example, Kate Galatas, CDC Deputy Director of the Office of the Associate Director for Communications, stated that the Office of the Vice President refused CDC’s request to hold a briefing in early April 2020 that would have shared information on the state of the pandemic, a new CDC recommendation to wear cloth face coverings, and new evidence of pediatric cases and deaths from the coronavirus.

Dr. Schuchat and Ms. Galatas confirmed that many media requests to interview CDC officials were denied during this period. 

When asked about reports that CDC officials were “muzzled” and that CDC’s efforts to respond to the pandemic “were hamstrung by a White House whose decisions are driven by politics rather than science,” Dr. Schuchat said:  “That is the feeling that we had, many of us had.”

Trump OMB Officials Played a Central Role in Altering CDC Public Health Guidance and Took Steps to Sidestep the Agency in Finalizing Guidance

In April 2020, CDC officials may have attempted to insulate the agency’s meatpacking guidance from potential White House interference. 

In an April 24, 2020 email to Director Redfield, former OMB Director Russell Vought wrote:  “Bob-Your team (Kyle McGowan) is saying that they are not going to send the meat packing guidance through the normal OIRA channel in order to serve Taskforce.  We need to make sure it comes in as normal to run our clearance process.  Can you make sure your team knows that?” 

According to public reporting, Redfield later agreed to soften the language in the meatpacking guidance, at the behest of former Vice President Pence’s Chief of Staff, Marc Short, and former Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Purdue.

After CDC officials declined certain proposed comments on draft guidance for faith communities, Jennie Lichter, then-Deputy Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, wrote that it was “unacceptable” that CDC had “accepted virtually none of the comments or edits submitted by me, DOJ, or anyone else on this very sensitive section.” 

Grogan wrote in response:  “Actually I am not sure these should go back to cdc.  I think we should make the edits and then a small group of principals finalize.”  The following day, Paul Ray, Administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, noted:  “CDC has maintained disagreement” with the “EOP-preferred version” of the faith community guidance. 

Dr. Atlas Weakened Testing Guidance to Reduce the Amount of Testing and Further His Herd Immunity Strategy

Dr. Scott Atlas, former Special Advisor to then-President Trump, was involved in making changes to CDC’s testing guidance, which was abruptly changed on August 24, 2020, to assert—contrary to scientific consensus—that most asymptomatic people should not be tested even if they were exposed to someone with the virus. 

Dr. Birx confirmed to the Select Subcommittee that these changes were made specifically to reduce the amount of testing being conducted across the country. 

On September 18, 2020, CDC released revised testing guidance, reinstituting the clear directive that anyone who comes into close contact with an individual infected with the coronavirus should get tested. 

The revised guidance was authored by Dr. Birx, Director Redfield, and Dr. Walke, and was released over “objections from senior White House personnel” according to Dr. Birx.

CDC Official Corroborates that Career CDC Officials Were Instructed to Destroy Evidence of Political Interference

Dr. Christine Casey, Editor of CDC’s MMWR Serials, confirmed that she was instructed to delete an August 8, 2020 email in which former HHS political appointee Dr. Paul Alexander demanded that CDC stop the publication of truthful scientific reports he believed were damaging to then-President Trump, and that she understood the instruction came from Dr. Redfield. 

Dr. Alexander’s email was so alarming to Dr. Casey that she recalled calling her superior at 2:00 a.m. to discuss it. 

When asked what she had been instructed to do by her superior, Dr. Casey responded:  “I believe he said that the director said to delete the email, and that anyone else who had received it, you know, should do as well.” 

Dr. Casey said that the instruction “seemed unusual” and “made me uncomfortable.”Dr. Casey’s account follows statements to the Select Subcommittee last December by MMWR Editor Dr. Charlotte Kent, which revealed for the first time that Dr. Kent had been instructed to delete Dr. Alexander’s email, and that she understood the instruction to come from Dr. Redfield.

Read the letter to Dr. Robert R. Redfield, former CDC Director.

Read the letter to HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra and CDC Director Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky requesting interviews with: Martin Cetron, Director, Division of Global Migration and Quarantine, CDCDaniel Jernigan, Deputy Director for Public Health Science and Surveillance, CDCHenry Walke, Director, Division of Preparedness and Emerging Infections, National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases, CDC

Click here to read excerpts from transcribed interviews released by the Select Subcommittee.

Click here to read new documents released by the Select Subcommittee.

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