The emails and transcripts describe how Trump and his White House allies blocked media briefings and interviews with CDC officials in the early days of 2020, tried to change public safety guidelines normally approved by the agency and officials. of the agency to destroy any evidence that may be perceived as political interference.
The documents further underscore how Trump appointees sought to undermine the work of scientists and professional personnel at the CDC to control government messages about the spread of the virus and the dangers of transmission and infection.
The CDC did not respond to a request for comment.
Several former top Trump officials, including Deborah Birx, the former White House Covid-19 Task Force Coordinator, answered committee questions. Former director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases Nancy Messonnier and former CDC deputy director Anne Schuchat also appeared for questioning. Both resigned from their positions at the CDC in the spring.
The documents released by the committee — and accompanying witness interviews — outline a timeline for how the Trump White House began to downplay the dangers of Covid-19. Several former high-level Trump officials who worked on the administration’s response have publicly said afterwards that they did not want to panic the American public.
But scientists at the CDC, well aware that the virus was spreading at a rapid rate and could easily infect, intervened early to speak directly to the American people in an effort to warn the public of what was to come. .
At a press conference in February 2020, Messonnier told reporters she expected the community to proliferate within the US and that the disruptions to daily life could be “serious”. It was one of a senior CDC official’s first blunt assessments of what lay ahead for the US
That warning frustrated Trump, according to documents released Friday by the congressional committee.
“I believed my comments were correct based on the information we had at the time,” Messonnier told the committee in its interview. “I heard that the president was not happy with the telebriefing.”
Following Messonnier’s comments in the Feb. 25 briefing, the leadership of the Ministry of Health and Human Services organized another press conference.
“The impression I got was that the response to the morning briefing was kind of volatile and I had another briefing – you know, later on I think I got the impression I was going to have another briefing – you know, there was nothing new report, but get more voices talking about that situation,” Schuchat told the commission in her testimony.
From then on, the White House spearheaded the federal response, monitoring all communications and messages about the virus, refusing CDC requests to hold its own briefings.
“We would request the others to do a briefing and it was rejected, and then — or we didn’t get approval 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 telebriefings from the agencies in the spring of 2020, which could help CDC scientists explain emerging evidence about how the virus moved and infected different populations.
As CDC scientists continued to try to get their field reporting on Covid-19 out, White House officials tried to alter the reporting and, at times, downplay the importance of the virus spreading.
POLITICO was the first to report in 2020 that communications officials from the Department of Health and Human Services were seeking changes to the CDC’s weekly Covid-19 reports to better align the summaries 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 some point in April 2020 she received instructions to send an e-mail. remove mail that reflects political interference.
Casey said Paul Alexander, the former temporary senior policy advisor to HHS’s deputy secretary of public affairs, told her to stop publishing the weekly reports, insinuating that her team was trying to make Trump look bad in public.
After talks with CDC leadership, including then director Robert Redfield, Michael Idemarco, one of the CDC’s leaders who oversees epidemiology and laboratory services, told Casey to delete the email.
“I believe he said the director [Redfield] said to delete the email and that anyone who received it should do the same,” Casey said in her testimony.
Schuchat told the committee that the CDC’s meddling in the scientific process went even further, affecting the agency’s public health guidelines from the start of the pandemic.
In one case, Schuchat said there was a directive to the White House in March 2020 to suspend the introduction of certain individuals from countries where a communicable disease exists. Martin Cetron, the director of the Global Migration and Quarantine Division at the CDC, refused to sign the warrant.
“He believed that the facts on the ground did not call for public health reasons and that the decision was not made on the basis of quarantine criteria. It could have been started for other purposes,” Schuchat said. “I don’t think he felt comfortable using his authority to do that because it didn’t meet his careful assessment of what the criteria are.”
Redfield eventually signed the warrant, despite Cetron’s resistance.
On several occasions, Schuchat said Alexander tried to change the wording of the MMWR, adding that it took “active effort” from career CDC personnel to maintain the integrity of the scientific reports.
“It’s a long-standing practice that the MMWRs are CDC scientific products and there is a firewall between the editorial production and the political level,” Schuchat said.
The CDC appeared to be taking steps to isolate the agency from input from other administrative offices regarding its work.
In an April 2020 email released by the committee on Friday, then-Office of Management and Budget Director Russell Vought emailed Redfield, asking questions about why the CDC had no intention of promulgating public health guidelines about meat processing plants through the White House. to steer. At the time, the White House was at odds with the CDC over what steps meat processing plants should take to protect workers from contracting Covid-19. The virus had infected several factories in the Midwest, disrupting workflow.
“Bob-Your team (Kyle McGowan) says they are not going to send the meat packing guidance through the normal OIRA channel to serve Taskforce. We need to make sure it comes in normally to keep our clearance process going,” 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 about guidelines for faith groups — institutions that saw a rising number of cases due to their large indoor gatherings. Jennie Lichter, then deputy director of the White House Council on Homeland Policy, wrote that it was “unacceptable” that the CDC had “accepted virtually none of the comments or edits made by me, DOJ, or anyone else on this highly sensitive section.” were submitted,” according to documents released by the committee on Friday.
In response, Joe Grogan, the former director of the US Domestic Policy Council and aide to Trump, wrote: “I’m not sure if these should go back to cdc. I think we should make the edits and then finalize a small group of clients.”
Later that summer, in August, the CDC was revamping its testing guidelines in anticipation of the new school year. Cases rose across the country, particularly in the Southwest and West. CDC scientists agreed the country needed to enforce strict testing guidelines to quickly detect community transmission to ward off future spikes.
Birx, then the White House’s Covid-19 Task Force Coordinator, told the House committee in her testimony that Atlas, a radiologist and White House adviser who often disagreed with the CDC, tried to follow the agency’s testing guidelines. to change.
He urged the agency to rewrite its guidelines to underline that only symptomatic individuals should be tested. His argument at the time was that the US only had to worry about those individuals who had Covid-19 and showed symptoms such as fever and cough, because those were the people who could spread the virus more easily. But scientists through the administration argued that asymptomatic individuals could still spread Covid-19 even if they showed no symptoms, and it was important to monitor both categories.
The wording in the testing guidelines was eventually amended to say, “You don’t necessarily need a test unless you are a vulnerable person or your health care provider or state or local public health officials recommend that you take one.”
“This paper resulted in less testing and less — less aggressive testing of people with no symptoms that I believed was the main reason for the early spread in the community,” Birx said, adding that the change in counseling was not based on science.