A congressional committee’s release of documents and interview transcripts sheds more light on how the Trump administration interfered with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, undermining the agency’s efforts to communicate the seriousness of the pandemic to the American people as the virus spread across the country.
Emails and transcripts of interviews with former top CDC employees published by the House select subcommittee on the coronavirus crisis show how far administration officials went to stifle the CDC’s public health communication efforts in the face of a rising viral danger.
“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,” committee Chair Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) wrote to Trump’s former CDC Director Dr. Robert 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.”
According to the committee’s interview with former National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases Director Nancy Messonnier, she corroborated media allegations that she irritated Trump when she warned the media in February 2020 that the virus might create “severe” disruptions to everyday life. Her comments elicited calls from then-HHS Secretary Alex Azar and Redfield. When asked about her chat with Azar, Messonnier said that she was “upset.”
“I believed that my remarks were accurate based on the information we had at the time,” Messonnier said. “I heard that the president was unhappy with the telebriefing.”
Former CDC Principal Deputy Director Anne Schuchat testified before the committee that the administration arranged another briefing to deflect from Messonnier’s statements.
“The impression that I was given was that the reaction to the morning briefing was quite volatile and having another briefing — you know, later I think I got the impression that having another briefing might get — you know, there was nothing new to report, but get additional voices out there talking about that situation,” Schuchat said.
For three months after the February briefing, the government prohibited CDC personnel from doing any public briefings at a time when the virus was quickly spreading across the United States. In addition, the administration rebuffed multiple media requests for interviews with CDC personnel. Schuchat said that she and many of her CDC colleagues felt “were hamstrung by a White House whose decisions are driven by politics rather than science.”
Instead of allowing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to lead the government response to the epidemic, the White House took things into its own hands by hosting its own briefings and refusing to allow the CDC to speak directly to the public. One Health and Human Services staffer even directed CDC employee Dr. Christine Casey to “immediately halt” the publishing of the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR). The CDC was accused of “writing hit pieces on the administration” in the reports, according to then-HHS Science Adviser Paul Alexander, in an email to Redfield.
In her testimony before the committee, Casey said that Redfield told her to erase the email, a request she described as “seemed unusual” and “made me uncomfortable.”
The data also reveals that the government altered the CDC’s guidelines for slowing the spread. After the virus halted production at a number of facilities, the White House directed the CDC to modify wording providing advise to meatpacking businesses on how to safeguard their employees from infection. And, as a special adviser to Trump, Dr. Scott Atlas unexpectedly revised the CDC’s testing advice to indicate that asymptomatic patients do not require a test even if they have been exposed to the virus.
Dr. Deborah Birx stated before the committee that this proposal was not the appropriate public health response, and that the administration made it in order to lower the number of positive Covid tests. “This document resulted in less testing and less — less aggressive testing of those without symptoms that I believed were the primary reason for the early community spread,” Birx told the committee, adding, “I did not agree with the guidance as it was written.”