Documents reveal new details of Trump political interference in COVID-19 response
Top political officials in the Trump White House tried to block public health guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and to eliminate evidence of political interference into scientists’ reports on the coronavirus, according to newly released documents from congressional investigators.
The latest documents from a House committee investigating the former administration’s response to the pandemic shed additional light on the efforts of some of former President Trump’s political appointees to blunt or even block the messages of career officials because they did not align with Trump’s rosy projections.
During a press briefing on Feb. 25, 2020, former senior CDC official Nancy Messonnier warned about the coming dangers of COVID-19. She told reporters that the spread of the coronavirus was essentially inevitable.
“It’s not so much a question of if this will happen anymore but rather more a question of exactly when,” she said.
Her statement angered Trump, and the administration subsequently stopped granting CDC officials permission to brief the public. The agency held no briefings from early March until June, during some of the earliest and most confusing times of the pandemic.
In an interview with the House select subcommittee on the pandemic, Messonnier said her intention was to to tell the truth.
“My intention was not and has never been to scare the public … our intention was certainly to get the public’s attention about the likelihood that COVID was going to be at the U.S. and that it was going to spread and that we thought that there was a high risk that it would be disruptive,” Messonnier said.
Former CDC Principal Deputy Director Anne Schuchat was then told to appear at another press conference that same afternoon with the Department of Health and Human Services.
“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.
After that day, the White House took over the pandemic response, including all public communication, and forbade the CDC from doing its own briefings.
“I do recall the agency asking to do briefings, but I don’t recall when and which ones. I know there was a point where they stopped asking because they kept saying no,” Schuchat said.
The White House coronavirus task force began holding its own briefings that spring. Schuchat said that at a certain point she stopped watching because she felt they were unhelpful and delivered conflicting messages.
At the same time, other Trump officials tried to stop the CDC from publishing what the White House felt was negative information about the pandemic. Officials specifically tried to interfere with the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports (MMWR) to make them better align with the White House’s more optimistic messaging about the state of the virus.
Christine Casey, the MMWR editor, confirmed to the committee that she was instructed to delete an email in which former HHS political appointee Paul Alexander demanded that the CDC stop the publication of truthful scientific reports he believed were damaging to Trump.
Casey said she understood the instruction came from former CDC Director Robert Redfield.
In another example, Scott Atlas, a former special adviser to Trump, was involved in making changes to the CDC’s guidance that dramatically narrowed who should be tested for COVID-19.
Atlas, a radiologist who had no prior infectious disease experience, was added to the task force in the summer of 2020 after Trump saw him on television.
The guidance was abruptly changed on Aug. 24, 2020, to assert that most asymptomatic people should not be tested, even if they were exposed to someone with the virus. The CDC made the move by updating its website and did not make any public announcement or explain the reasoning behind the major revision.
The guidelines were released over the objections of Deborah Birx, the Trump administration’s former coronavirus response coordinator.
Birx told the committee she believed Atlas was spearheading the change because he wanted fewer tests.
Administration officials told reporters at the time that the guidelines were a collaborative product and were approved by the entire White House task force, but Birx said she was traveling when the updated guidance was pushed through.
“After this guidance was posted … we saw a dramatic decline of the number of tests performed during the end of August and the beginning of September,” Birx said. “This document resulted in less testing and less aggressive testing of those without symptoms that I believed were the primary reason for the early community spread.”
Less than a month later, the CDC released revised testing guidance to make it clear that anyone who comes into close contact with an individual infected with the coronavirus should get tested.
The revised guidance was authored by Birx, Redfield and Henry Walke, a veteran CDC official.
Birx said it was released over “objections from senior White House personnel.”
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