New emails and documents released by a congressional committee investigating the Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic show the extent to which top White House officials interfered in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s efforts to warn Americans about Covid-19.
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.
On Friday, the committee released emails and transcripts with former senior CDC officials about the White House’s attempts to sideline the agency at critical moments at the beginning of the U.S. outbreak.
The emails and transcripts detail how in the early days of 2020 Trump and his allies in the White House blocked media briefings and interviews with CDC officials, attempted to alter public safety guidance normally cleared by the agency and instructed agency officials to destroy evidence that might be construed as political interference.
The documents further underscore how Trump appointees tried to undermine the work of scientists and career staff at the CDC to control the administration’s messaging on the spread of the virus and the dangers of transmission and infection.
The CDC did not respond to a request for comment.
Several top former Trump officials, including Deborah Birx, the former White House Covid-19 task force coordinator, have answered committee questions. Former National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases Director Nancy Messonnier and former CDC Principal Deputy Director Anne Schuchat also appeared for questioning. Both stepped down from their posts at the CDC in the spring.
The documents released by the committee — and the corresponding interviews with witnesses — lay out a timeline for how the Trump White House began to downplay the dangers posed by Covid-19. Several former high-level Trump officials who worked on the administration’s response have said publicly after the fact that they did not want to panic the American public.
But scientists at the CDC, well aware that the virus was transmitting at a high rate and could infect easily, stepped in early to speak to the American people directly in an attempt to warn the public about what was coming.
In a press conference in February 2020, Messonnier told reporters that she expected community spread within the U.S. and that the disruptions to everyday life could be “severe.” It was one of the first blunt assessments from a high-level CDC official about what was in store for the U.S.
That warning frustrated Trump, according to documents released by the congressional committee Friday.
“I believed that my remarks were accurate based on the information we had at the time,” Messonnier told the committee in her interview. “I heard that the President was unhappy with the telebriefing.”
Following Messonnier’s comments in the Feb. 25 briefing, the leadership at the Department of Health and Human Services called yet another press conference.
“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 told the committee in her testimony.
From that point, the White House took the lead on the federal response and controlling all communications and messaging about the virus, denying CDC requests to hold its own briefings.
“We would submit a request to the others to do a briefing and it was declined, and then — or we didn’t get approval to be able to do one,” Schuchat said, referring to specific requests she received from the media for an interview. Schuchat said the White House also denied several agency telebriefings in the spring of 2020 that would have allowed CDC scientists to explain emerging evidence about how the virus moved and infected different populations.
As CDC scientists continued to try and push out their field reporting on Covid-19, White House officials attempted to morph messaging and at times downplay the significance of the spread of the virus.
POLITICO was the first to report in 2020 that communication officials at the Department of Health and Human Services sought to seek changes in the CDC’s weekly Covid-19 reports to align the summaries more closely with the president’s talking points.
Christine Casey, one of the leaders of the CDC team that publishes weekly scientific reports, also known as Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports, told the House committee that at one point in August 2020 she received instructions to delete an email reflecting political interference.
Casey said Paul Alexander, the former temporary senior policy adviser to the assistant secretary for public affairs at HHS, instructed her to stop publishing the weekly reports, insinuating her team was trying to make Trump look bad in public.
After conversations with leadership at the CDC, including then-Director Robert Redfield, Michael Iademarco, one of the CDC’s leaders overseeing epidemiology and laboratory services, told Casey to delete the email.
“I believe he said that the director [Redfield] said to delete the email and that anyone else who had received it, you know, should do as well,” Casey said in her testimony.
Schuchat told the committee that the interference in the CDC’s scientific process went even further and affected the agency’s public health guidance from the beginning of the pandemic.
In one instance, Schuchat said there was a directive in March 2020 to the White House to suspend the introduction of certain persons from countries where a communicable disease exists. Martin Cetron, the director for the Division of Global Migration and Quarantine at the CDC, refused to sign the order.
“His view was that the facts on the ground didn’t call for this from a public health reason and that the decision wasn’t being made based on criteria for quarantine. It may have been initiated for other purposes,” Schuchat said. “ I don’t think he was comfortable using his authority to do that because it didn’t meet his careful review of what the criteria are.”
Redfield eventually signed the order despite Cetron’s opposition.
On several instances, Schuchat said Alexander tried to change the wording of the MMWR, adding that it took “active effort” from career CDC staff to preserve the integrity of the scientific reports.
“There’s a long-standing practice that the MMWRs are scientific products of CDC and that there’s a firewall between the editorial production and political levels,” Schuchat said.
The CDC appeared to take steps to insulate the agency from input from other administration offices regarding its work.
In an April 2020 email released by the committee Friday, then-Office of Management and Budget Director Russell Vought emailed Redfield, raising questions about why the CDC was not planning to send public health guidance on meatpacking plants through the White House. At the time, the White House was at odds with CDC about what steps meatpacking plants should take to protect workers from contracting Covid-19. The virus had infected several plants in the Midwest, causing disruptions to workflow.
“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,” Vought wrote. At the urging of top White House officials, including Marc Short, former chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence, Redfield softened the language of the guidance.
In another similar scenario, CDC scientists pushed back on comments received on guidance for faith groups — institutions which were seeing rising case numbers because of their large indoor gatherings. 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,” according to documents released by the committee Friday.
In response, Joe Grogan, the former director of the U.S. Domestic Policy Council and assistant to Trump, wrote: “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.”
Later that summer, in August, the CDC was in the process of renewing its testing guidance in anticipation of the new school year. Cases were surging across the country, particularly in the Southwest and West. CDC scientists were in agreement that the country needed to maintain strict testing guidelines to quickly detect community transmission to fend off future surges.
Birx, then the White House Covid-19 task force coordinator, told the House committee in her testimony that Atlas, a radiologist and White House adviser who frequently disagreed with the CDC, attempted to alter the agency’s testing guidance.
He pressed the agency to rewrite its guidelines to underscore that only symptomatic individuals needed to get tested. His argument, at the time, was that the U.S. only needed to worry about those individuals who had Covid-19 and were experiencing symptoms such as fever and coughing because those were the people who could more easily spread the virus. But scientists through the administration argued that asymptomatic individuals could still spread Covid-19 even if they did not exhibit symptoms and it was important to track both categories.
The wording in the testing guidelines was eventually tweaked to say: “You do not necessarily need a test unless you are a vulnerable individual or your healthcare provider or state or local public health officials recommend you take one.”
“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 said, adding that the change in the guidance was not based on science.
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