Trump sought to ‘undermine’ COVID-19 response, says panel

The Trump administration deliberately undermined the nation’s coronavirus response for political purposes, including by weakening testing guidance and championing widespread “herd immunity,” according to a new report from the House panel investigating the pandemic response.

The Democratic staff report released Friday was a summation of the year’s work investigating political interference in the pandemic response from Trump officials and the former president himself. 

In interviews with officials and from uncovered emails and other documents, the committee found that the former administration failed to heed warnings about supply shortages, blocked public health officials from speaking publicly and neglected the pandemic response in order to focus on the 2020 presidential election and on promoting the lie that the election was “stolen” from Trump through widespread fraud.

New evidence released by the panel Friday highlighted the frustration and anger among senior public health officials with Trump’s embrace of the herd immunity strategy.

In one instance, Trump held a roundtable event at the White House in August 2020 with some of herd immunity’s top proponents that was organized by Scott Atlas, a radiologist who became a special adviser to Trump. 

According to emails obtained by the panel, former White House coronavirus response coordinator Deborah Birx described it as “a fringe group.”

“I can’t be part of this with these people who believe in herd immunity,” Birx wrote in an email to then-Chief of Staff to the Vice President Marc Short. “These are people who believe that all the curves are predetermined and mitigation is irrelevant — they are a fringe group without grounding in epidemics, public health or on the ground common sense experience. I am happy to go out of town or whatever gives the WH cover,” she wrote.

Other details released by the panel Friday showed the Trump White House intentionally “softened” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s public health guidance for faith communities.

Jay Butler, the deputy director for infectious diseases, told the panel in an interview he was pressured by the White House to publish guidance for faith communities that “softened some very important public health recommendations,” such as removing all references to face coverings, a suggestion to suspend choirs, and language related to virtual services. 

Butler said he felt the guidance “was not good public health practice” and would put people’s lives at risk

“I was doing a lot of soul searching about whether or not I should have agreed to even make the change in the document.  Clearly, it was a directive, but that was a real struggle as I felt like what had been done was not good public health practice,” he told the committee.

Updated at 11:25 a.m.

Tags COVID-19 Deborah Birx House Oversight Committee Scott Atlas Trump administration
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