Clyburn Issues Subpoenas to Azar and Redfield on Political Meddling in CDC’s Coronavirus Response
Washington, D.C. (December 21, 2020) — Today, Rep. James E. Clyburn, Chairman of the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, issued subpoenas to Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Alex M. Azar II and Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Robert R. Redfield, ordering them to produce documents on political interference that hindered the nation’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, putting American lives at greater risk. The subpoenas follow more than three months of obstruction by HHS and evidence that Director Redfield ordered subordinates to delete a key document.
In a letter to Secretary Azar and Director Redfield, the Select Subcommittee also revealed new evidence that political appointees targeted CDC scientific reports that showed “massive spread” of the virus, which they believed sent “the wrong message” about the Trump Administration’s policies. The new evidence also reveals that CDC officials faced a “pattern of hostile and threatening behavior” from senior HHS appointees.
“The subpoenas were necessary because the Select Subcommittee’s investigation has revealed that efforts to interfere with scientific work at CDC were far more extensive and dangerous than previously known. Documents recently obtained by the Subcommittee show that over a period of four months, as coronavirus cases and deaths rose around the country, Trump Administration appointees attempted to alter or block at least 13 scientific reports related to the virus,” wrote Chairman Clyburn. “Top political officials at HHS and CDC not only tolerated these efforts, but in some cases aided them—even after a senior career official warned that CDC’s scientific writing ‘needs to remain an independent process’ and that the Administration’s attempts to influence these reports violated ‘long-standing policy.’”
New Evidence of Political Interference
Appointees Tried to Block or Alter at Least 13 CDC Reports
· New documents reveal that HHS Assistant Secretary Michael Caputo, Senior Advisor Paul Alexander, and other officials engaged in a far-reaching campaign to influence CDC’s scientific reports, despite pushback from career staff.
· In a June 5, 2020, email, the top career official in HHS’s Public Affairs Office wrote to Mr. Caputo and Dr. Alexander: “[The Office of the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs] is not a science or medical program office and, as matter of long-standing policy, we do not engage in clearing scientific articles, as that arena needs to remain an independent process.”
· Despite this warning, documents show political appointees at HHS attempted to influence more than a dozen scientific reports in CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) between May and September 2020.
Report on Hydroxychloroquine
- In June and July 2020, political appointees tried to block or alter a report on hydroxychloroquine, which President Trump lauded as a “miracle” treatment even though the FDA found the potential risks outweighed the benefits.
- Mr. Caputo and Dr. Alexander obtained an advanced copy of the report, which they discussed “shelving” or editing. HHS officials then drafted a rebuttal attacking the report. This inaccurate rebuttal—which does not appear to have been published—claimed the MMWR “presents factual information with an agenda” and could “prevent the news from giving the proper coverage of a true ‘miracle cure.’” It also falsely asserted, “there is no academic value in this study whatsoever,” and baselessly smeared the dedicated scientists who drafted it, stating, “The authors of this study are a disgrace to public service.”
- Dr. Charlotte Kent of CDC stated in a Select Subcommittee interview that this rebuttal “could undermine confidence in CDC and in the quality of science that is in MMWR.”
Report on Outbreak at Georgia Summer Camp
- On July 26, 2020, HHS officials received a draft summary of a report on a coronavirus outbreak at a Georgia summer camp. Dr. Alexander responded that the report—which he admitted found “massive spread” of the virus at a summer camp—would undermine the Administration’s push to quickly reopen school. He wrote:
“I find it incredible this piece would be put out the way it is written at a time when CDC and its leader Dr. Redfield is trying to showcase the school re-open guidance and the push is to help schools re-open safely. It just sends the wrong message as written and actually reads as if to send a message of NOT to re-open.”
- In response, CDC officials edited the report abstract to avoid mentioning the potential health implications for children in schools. Dr. Kent wrote to Dr. Alexander and Dr. Redfield: “The opening sentence was the only reference to schools or institutions of higher learning in the report, and the reference to them has been removed.”
- HHS officials also drafted a rebuttal to try to cast doubt on the report’s key finding that children can transmit the virus to each other and to adults. On July 27, 2020, Dr. Alexander wrote to Mr. Caputo and others: “Hi Michael, as requested, here is the piece to rebut that poor CDC MMWR…I am not sure where it can be published but this has very re-assuring information and even for the White House.”
- As described in the Select Subcommittee’s December 10 letter, according to Dr. Kent, this report was delayed until after Dr. Redfield’s testimony before the Select Subcommittee because “there were some very important things that they wanted to convey during that meeting.”
Bullying CDC Officials
- Emails show that Mr. Caputo bullied and retaliated against CDC officials for providing truthful information to the American people. In one example, a CDC scientist spoke to NPR about the Administration’s abrupt decision to remove CDC from its role collecting critical hospital data. Mr. Caputo responded by seeking to discipline the staff who arranged the interview, writing, “If you disobey my directions, you will be held accountable.” A CDC official described his conduct as “a pattern of hostile and threatening behavior directed at … communication staff at CDC.”
Subpoenas Are Needed Because of the Trump Administration’s Obstruction
Despite repeated follow-up efforts, the Department refused to produce a single document or witness for nearly two months. After the Select Subcommittee threatened to issue subpoenas on October 22, 2020, HHS agreed to complete its production by November 23.
However, HHS has produced only a fraction of responsive documents. Many of the documents that were produced are entirely redacted, duplicative, or non-responsive—including some documents that predated the coronavirus pandemic entirely.
In a witness interview on December 7, 2020, the Select Subcommittee uncovered evidence that Director Redfield had ordered CDC staff to delete a key email that was relevant to the Select Subcommittee’s investigation. Following this revelation, HHS canceled four other interviews with senior CDC staff.
On December 10, 2020, the Select Subcommittee warned that HHS and CDC must fully comply with the overdue document requests by December 15 or face subpoenas. The letter also requested a transcribed interview with Director Redfield. The Administration did not meet this deadline and refused to make Dr. Redfield available.
On December 16, 2020, the Select Subcommittee released new evidence that HHS officials discussed a strategy of deliberately allowing Americans to be infected with the coronavirus, making it even more urgent that the Select Subcommittee receive the documents it needs to complete this inquiry.
“HHS has made clear that it will not provide a timely and complete response to the Select Subcommittee’s requests on a voluntary basis. Although the Select Subcommittee has made extensive efforts to obtain cooperation over the last three months, HHS continues to withhold responsive documents related to senior HHS and CDC officials,” wrote Chairman Clyburn. “HHS is also blocking the Select Subcommittee from interviewing five key witnesses, including Director Redfield, his principal deputy, and his acting chief of staff. For these reasons, the Select Subcommittee had no choice but to issue subpoenas compelling production of documents that have been withheld by HHS and CDC since September.”
Today’s subpoenas require Secretary Azar and Director Redfield to produce all documents that the Select Subcommittee initially requested in September by December 30, 2020.
Click here to read today’s letter to HHS Secretary Azar and CDC Director Redfield.
Click here to read the documents released by the Select Subcommittee.