Trump health officials grilled over reports of politics in COVID-19 response

Trump health officials grilled over reports of politics in COVID-19 response
© Bloomberg/Pool

Trump administration health officials were grilled by senators Wednesday about a cascade of reports on political interference in the federal government’s response to the pandemic.

The officials sought to defend the scientific integrity of the administration’s response, while at times striking markedly different notes than President TrumpDonald John TrumpFederal prosecutor speaks out, says Barr 'has brought shame' on Justice Dept. Former Pence aide: White House staffers discussed Trump refusing to leave office Progressive group buys domain name of Trump's No. 1 Supreme Court pick MORE, particularly on the importance of wearing masks.

The Senate Appropriations health subcommittee hearing assessing the coronavirus response took place against a backdrop of turmoil in the administration, with news coming that same day that the top spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Michael Caputo, would be taking a 60-day leave of absence after he accused government scientists of forming a “resistance unit” to Trump and urged supporters to arm themselves ahead of the Nov. 3 election.

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Sen. Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurraySenate Democrats introduce legislation to probe politicization of pandemic response Trump health officials grilled over reports of politics in COVID-19 response CDC director pushes back on Caputo claim of 'resistance unit' at agency MORE (Wash.), the top Democrat on the full committee, pointed to Caputo’s comments as well as other instances, like Trump accusing the Food and Drug Administration of harboring a “deep state” slowing down treatments and vaccines, in raising concerns about political pressure.

“His administration has been recklessly interfering with these agencies for political benefit,” Murray said.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Robert Redfield explicitly defended his agency against Caputo’s accusation of having a “resistance unit.”

“Not only is it not true, it deeply saddened me when I read those comments, because as I said in my statement, CDC is made up of thousands of dedicated men and women, highly competent. It is the premier public health agency in the world," Redfield said.

When Murray pressed Redfield on Trump’s comments to journalist Bob Woodward that he purposely downplayed the severity of the virus, Redfield simply said: “I’m not going to comment on that.”

The CDC director raised some eyebrows with his comments on the importance of wearing masks.

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“This face mask is more guaranteed to protect me against COVID than when I take a COVID vaccine,” Redfield said.

He then explained how a vaccine is not expected to work in 100 percent of people whereas a mask offers at least some protection to everyone who wears one.

Trump rarely wears a facial covering and has held rallies speaking to hundreds of largely maskless people.

Aside from Caputo’s incendiary comments, Redfield also faced questions about a consequential policy change to CDC testing guidelines issued last month stating asymptomatic people “do not necessarily need a test unless you are a vulnerable individual or your health care provider or State or local public health officials recommend you take one.”

The revised guidance provoked a firestorm from experts who said the country needs more testing, not less.

Democrats on Wednesday pressed Redfield on whether the guidance was meant to be in line with Trump’s repeated public disparagement of increased testing.

Redfield maintained there had been a “misinterpretation” of the guidance, and that the agency is in fact recommending testing for everyone who has been in contact with an infected person.

Republican Sen. Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderPelosi urges early voting to counter GOP's high court gambit: 'There has to be a price to pay' Graham: GOP has votes to confirm Trump's Supreme Court nominee before the election The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Washington on edge amid SCOTUS vacancy MORE (Tenn.) also expressed concern with the policy change, saying widespread testing of asymptomatic people would “build confidence that the school, the college, the child care center, the workplace and the restaurant are safe places to go.”

Redfield said the CDC is working on a document that would clarify its position on testing.

Fears of political meddling are also bubbling up in HHS’s plan to run a $250 million communications campaign to “defeat despair and inspire hope” about the pandemic. 

“It looks like the administration intends to use a quarter of a billion dollars on a massive media campaign to mislead the public, actually to downplay the pandemic. And that's really unacceptable,” Murray said. “Congress provided these funds to fight COVID-19, not to support any kind of campaign or reelection campaign.”

Redfield confirmed that his agency has been asked by the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and HHS to transfer $300 million to the public affairs office to carry out the campaign, but said there was no consultation beyond that.

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“We haven't played a role. We were just, as I mentioned, instructed by HHS and OMB to transfer the funds,” Redfield said. 

Pressed by Murray as to whether health officials would be ensuring that the campaign was accurate and science-based, Brett Giroir, the assistant secretary for health at HHS, told lawmakers he also was not involved in the effort.

“We certainly would welcome the opportunity to help support the correct messages to the American people,” he said.

Redfield also had a note of caution on hopes about a vaccine, echoing warnings from other health experts like White House coronavirus task force member Anthony FauciAnthony FauciTillis appears to reinforce question about COVID-19 death toll Overnight Health Care: Trump signs largely symbolic pre-existing conditions order amid lawsuit | White House puts off action on surprise medical bills | Rising coronavirus cases spark fears of harsh winter NY health officials to review any vaccine approved by Trump MORE, saying that when one is ready, it will take time to vaccinate everyone in the country, a process he said will likely not be complete until late in the second quarter or the third quarter of 2021.

“It’s going to take us probably into the order of six to nine months to get the American public vaccinated,” he said.