CDC officials describe intense pressure, job threats from Trump White House in congressional report
The Washington Post October 17, 2022
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Appointees of President Donald Trump oversaw a concerted effort to restrict immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border during the pandemic, change scientific reports and muzzle top officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to emails, text messages and interviews gathered by a congressional panel probing the pandemic response.
Former CDC director Robert Redfield, former top deputy Anne Schuchat and others described how the Trump White House and its allies repeatedly "bullied" staff, tried to rewrite their publications and threatened their jobs in an attempt to align the CDC with the more optimistic view of the pandemic espoused by Trump, the House select subcommittee on the coronavirus crisis concluded in a report released Monday.
Several public health officials detailed a months-long campaign against Schuchat sparked by Trump appointees' belief that her grim assessments of the pandemic reflected poorly on the president, leading Schuchat, a 32-year CDC veteran, to openly wonder whether she would be fired in the summer of 2020, her colleagues told the panel.
The panel's latest report also offers new insight into key flash points, such as a CDC-backed plan to require masks on public and commercial transportation in the summer of 2020, with Martin Cetron, director of the agency's division of global migration and quarantine, citing evidence that the requirement would have reduced coronavirus risks to travelers.
The plan was backed by the travel industry and "could have made a significant contribution" by curbing infections and deaths ahead of a fall and winter virus surge that year, Cetron added, but Trump officials blocked the measure. President Biden later issued a similar order in his second day in office in January 2021.
Redfield and other officials told the panel that they believed they might be fired if they angered the White House, hindering the CDC's ability to fight the virus.
"If we constantly are finger-pointing and blaming somebody else for things, we lose the fact that the real enemy here was the virus," Cetron said in a May 2022 interview included in the report, adding that political infighting hampered the pandemic response. Cetron also criticized a federal order, Title 42, that used the pandemic as a public health reason to bar people from entering the United States at its borders with Canada and Mexico as an example of a poorly constructed policy where CDC experts were overruled.
The order was "handed to us," Cetron told the panel, saying that then-White House adviser Stephen Miller was among the officials who discussed the immigration restrictions. Other emails and media reports have linked Miller to the order's creation.
While Cetron said he and his team opposed the order, arguing it lacked a scientific basis because the coronavirus was already widely spreading in the United States and could lead to harm for asylum seekers, Redfield signed Title 42 in March 2020. The Trump administration characterized the measure, which allows the government to immediately send asylum seekers back to their home countries, as a way to prevent the spread of infection in detention cells, at border stations and in other crowded settings. Hundreds of thousands of migrants have since been turned away at the U.S.-Mexico border. The measure remains in place under the Biden administration after a district court judge in May blocked the administration's plan to lift the order.
The panel's report draws on more than 2,100 pages of transcribed interviews with Redfield, Schuchat, Cetron and 10 other current and former CDC officials that were newly released on Monday, in addition to prior interviews and testimony from people such as former White House coronavirus coordinator Deborah Birx. The panel also released other documents, including a letter sent by a pair of former Trump appointees, Kyle McGowan and Amanda Campbell, who served as the CDC's chief of staff and deputy chief of staff, respectively, that detailed examples of political interference and poor treatment of CDC officials.
"The committee's report reflects a serious and fair look at what happened," McGowan said.
Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), who chairs the panel, said that the report demonstrates how the Trump White House engaged in a concerted effort "to downplay the seriousness" of the pandemic.
"This prioritization of politics, contempt for science, and refusal to follow the advice of public health experts harmed the nation's ability to respond effectively to the coronavirus crisis and put Americans at risk," Clyburn said in a statement.
Clyburn's panel has spent more than two years investigating the Trump administration's pandemic response, issuing reports that detailed White House pressure on the Food and Drug Administration to authorize unproven coronavirus treatments such as the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine; its efforts to overrule public health officials on coronavirus guidance for churches; and exploring how its focus on challenging the 2020 election outcome distracted from the virus response, among other findings.
Republicans have assailed the panel's reports as partisan, saying it has neglected to probe Biden administration virus missteps or the origins of the pandemic. GOP leaders vow to conduct their own investigations next year should they win control of the House or Senate. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky also acknowledged this summer that her agency had made significant mistakes during the pandemic, laying out a plan intended to speed up its recommendations, improve its communications and take other steps to win back public trust.
The report also details how Trump appointees at the Department of Health and Human Services worked to wrest control of the agency's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports, or MMWRs, which offer public updates on scientists' findings and had been considered off-limits to political appointees for decades.
McGowan and Campbell told the panel that fellow Trump appointees were angry about a May 2020 MMWR written by Schuchat that they believed did not give them sufficient credit for their efforts to contain the pandemic.
"Secretary [Alex] Azar, in particular, was upset and said that if the CDC would not get in line, then HHS would take control of approving the publication," McGowan and Campbell's lawyer wrote to the panel. As a result, Trump appointees increasingly received access to the CDC's draft summaries and sought to edit or block the reports, including one on the rise in hydroxychloroquine prescriptions that was held up for more than two months amid concerns it would call attention to an unproven treatment touted by Trump.
In a statement, Azar said that he "never pressured Dr. Redfield to modify the content of a single MMWR scientific article."
"I always regarded the MMWR and other peer-reviewed scientific publications as sacrosanct," Azar added, saying that he worked with Redfield to "protect the integrity" of the report's peer-review process after a "defect" was identified in May 2020. Azar did not specify the "defect" that needed to be addressed.
The panel concluded that Trump appointees had sought to "alter the contents, rebut, or delay the release" of 18 MMWRs and one health alert on an inflammation syndrome in children who had previously tested positive for the coronavirus, and succeeded at least five times.
CDC officials said the agency resisted the most significant efforts to edit their publications. "Was I concerned that there was an attempt to alter the scientific content of the MMWR? Yes. Do I think they were successful? No," Jay Butler, the CDC's deputy director of infectious diseases, told the panel in a November 2021 interview.
The panel also details repeated attempts by Trump appointees to pressure Schuchat, such as a personal phone call from then-White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows — the first time any White House chief of staff had called the CDC deputy, she said — that left her "very shaken," she told the panel, declining to offer details of the call, on the advice of HHS counsel.
Meadows did not immediately reply to an email sent to a spokesperson.
Schuchat was again targeted after an interview she gave to a medical journal in June 2020 in which she acknowledged the nation's struggles in containing the virus. HHS spokesperson Michael Caputo and his adviser Paul Alexander circulated internal emails claiming the CDC deputy was attempting "to damage the president."
Other officials described interactions with Caputo and Alexander where the two men "threatened" staff, such as when a CDC official spoke to NPR without the HHS spokesperson's permission in July, the panel said. Caputo "wanted to terminate the CDC official who set up the interview," McGowan and Campbell's lawyer wrote to the panel.
Caputo declined a request for comment. Alexander did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Redfield said that he repeatedly told Caputo that Alexander should stop his barrage of emails to staffers demanding changes to CDC publications and accusing them of working to undermine Trump. "I advocated to Caputo, probably around [late June], that he should get rid of this guy. He's not helpful," Redfield told the panel.
But Alexander's messages continued until mid-September, when his emails leaked to the press and Caputo subsequently accused CDC scientists of sedition in a Facebook Live video. Caputo took a medical leave on Sept. 16, and Alexander left the agency the same day.
Redfield also said he clashed with the White House and Florida politicians about his plan to reissue a "no-sail order" that would keep the nation's cruise ships in dock, given evidence that the coronavirus could rapidly spread aboard the vessels and sicken and potentially kill vulnerable passengers.
"I was signing it … [even] if that meant that I was resigning or being fired as CDC director," Redfield told the panel. He said he was eventually able to reach a compromise in October 2020 that kept the ships in dock until the cruise industry instituted more safety precautions.