New Select Subcommittee Report Details Trump Administration’s Assault on CDC and Politicization of Public Health During the Coronavirus Crisis
Washington, D.C. (October 17, 2022) – Today, the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, chaired by Rep. James E. Clyburn, released a staff report detailing efforts by the Trump Administration to compromise the scientific integrity of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) coronavirus response in an attempt to serve the former President’s political goals.
This staff report is the third installment in a series of reports documenting the Select Subcommittee’s findings from its investigation into the Trump Administration’s rampant political interference with the federal public health response to the coronavirus pandemic. The first installment chronicled the Trump White House’s embrace of a dangerous and discredited herd immunity via mass infection strategy well before vaccines were available. The second installment revealed extensive evidence of the Trump White House’s relentless pressure campaigns targeting the Food and Drug Administration’s scientific decision-making on the coronavirus.
Chairman Clyburn released the following statement about today’s report:
“The Select Subcommittee’s investigation has shown that the previous administration engaged in an unprecedented campaign of political interference in the federal government’s pandemic response, which undermined public health to benefit the former president’s political goals. As today’s report shows, President Trump and his top aides repeatedly attacked CDC scientists, compromised the agency’s public health guidance, and suppressed scientific reports in an effort to downplay the seriousness of the coronavirus. This prioritization of politics, contempt for science, and refusal to follow the advice of public health experts harmed the nation’s ability to respond effectively to the coronavirus crisis and put Americans at risk. As we continue to recover from the coronavirus crisis, we must also continue to work to safeguard scientific integrity and restore the American people’s trust in our public health institutions.”
Today’s staff report is entitled “‘It Was Compromised’: The Trump Administration’s Unprecedented Campaign to Control CDC and Politicize Public Health During the Coronavirus Crisis,” and is available in full here. The report reveals the following key findings:
The Trump White House Blocked CDC from Conveying Accurate Information to the Public in the Early Months of the Pandemic
- After a February 25, 2020, CDC telebriefing “angered” President Trump, the White House wrested control of coronavirus communications away from CDC and mandated that all media requests related to the pandemic be approved by the Office of the Vice President prior to release. Trump Administration officials blocked CDC from conducting telebriefings on critical public health issues for three months and restricted scientists from participating in interviews at a time that coincided with a rapid explosion in coronavirus cases.
- CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield told the Select Subcommittee that during this time “none of our briefings were approved” even though he believed the American public “should have heard from the public health leaders.” According a senior CDC communications official, the requirement that CDC obtain clearance for its public messaging “created big confusion” at CDC and caused “delays in being able to share information.”
The Trump White House Installed Political Operatives Who Sought to Downplay the Risks Posed by the Coronavirus and Retaliated Against CDC Scientists Who Contradicted Trump Administration Talking Points
- In April 2020, President Trump installed Michael Caputo—his close political ally—as Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), allowing him to take over approval of coronavirus communications. A senior CDC communications officer told the Select Subcommittee that Mr. Caputo used “bully-ish behavior” designed to make CDC personnel “feel threatened.” In one incident, Mr. Caputo expressed that he was “very displeased” when he felt that statements made by a top CDC scientist during a June 12, 2020, telebriefing were “too alarming.” The scientist—Deputy Director of Infectious Diseases Dr. Jay Butler who was Incident Manager for CDC’s coronavirus response at the time—told the Select Subcommittee that he “was not really asked back to do telebriefings” after the incident.
- Officials from Mr. Caputo’s office attacked CDC scientists when they publicly shared information that Trump officials believed contradicted the Administration’s messaging. In a new email obtained by the Select Subcommittee, Dr. Paul Alexander—a Senior Advisor to Mr. Caputo—attacked a forthcoming CDC report as “garbage” and designed “to hurt the public and the administration.” He advocated for CDC officials to be fired, saying “he [Dr. Redfield] gots [sic] to start firing people in large numbers there! This agency is working against the President daily!”
- Trump Administration officials repeatedly sought to alter CDC and HHS press materials to downplay coronavirus risks, promote positive news, and attempt to redirect blame away from the Trump Administration for its poor handling of the coronavirus pandemic. For instance, a new email obtained by the Select Subcommittee shows that on May 8, 2020, Dr. Alexander sought to edit talking points about a CDC report, telling Mr. Caputo “this is how I am supporting the messaging . . . . Any way to help you and showcase your work for this great President.” Another newly obtained email reveals that on May 28, 2020, Dr. Alexander suggested changes to a draft CDC statement on the coronavirus death toll in the United States to make the statement “more positive,” removing language he said was too “heavy.”
Trump Administration Officials “Compromised” Multiple Public Health Guidance Documents
- Evidence contained in today’s report shows how Trump Administration political appointees repeatedly interfered in CDC’s coronavirus guidance––overruling scientists to weaken CDC’s public health recommendations, including its guidance for faith communities, a meatpacking plant, polling locations and voters, restaurants and bars, and testing.
- Dr. Redfield acknowledged in a transcribed interview that Trump Administration officials “compromised” CDC’s coronavirus guidance documents on multiple occasions. He said that the process for developing coronavirus guidance “got complicated” and that it gave him “PTSD.” Dr. Redfield also noted that Trump Office of Management and Budget (OMB) officials effectively wielded veto power over CDC’s coronavirus guidance, explaining: “we didn’t get the approval usually to issue the guidance until OMB gave it a thumb’s up.”
Trump Administration Officials Brazenly Interfered with CDC’s Public Health Authorities to Achieve Political Goals
- Trump Administration officials exploited CDC’s Title 42 authority to effectively close the southern border under the guise of mitigating spread of the virus. Dr. Martin Cetron, Director of CDC’s Division of Global Migration and Quarantine, told the Select Subcommittee that the Title 42 order issued on March 20, 2020, “was not drafted by me or my team,” but was instead “handed to us”––and that he recalled participating on calls about the order during which White House Senior Advisor Stephen Miller “was speaking.” According to a press report, Dr. Cetron told a CDC colleague in March 2020 after receiving the proposed Title 42 order: “I will not be a part of this. It’s just morally wrong to use a public authority that has never, ever, ever been used this way. It’s to keep Hispanics out of the country. And it’s wrong.” Dr. Cetron confirmed that this statement was “consistent with some of the concerns that I had.” Dr. Cetron told the Select Subcommittee that he “excused” himself from working on the order, which was ultimately signed by Dr. Redfield.
- Trump Administration officials blocked CDC from deploying a mask requirement on public and commercial transportation ahead of the fall and winter 2020 surge, despite calls from airlines and others in the transit industry for federal support for mask requirements at a time before vaccines were available. Nevertheless, Dr. Cetron said that CDC was told by Trump Administration officials that a mask requirement on mass transportation “would not happen.” Dr. Cetron noted that he believes this tool “could have made a significant contribution” to saving American lives from the coronavirus in 2020.
- Trump Administration officials rejected CDC’s plan to extend its No Sail Order through the winter of 2020-2021. Dr. Redfield told the Select Subcommittee that he advocated to extend the No Sail Order until March 2021, because “human life was dependent on it.” However, he stated that “the Vice President made the decision” not to extend the order through the winter. CDC instead issued a Conditional Sail Order—which, according to Dr. Redfield, made “a lot of people” “angry,” including “your Florida Governor,” who questioned why any CDC regulation was needed. Dr. Redfield recounted that he “felt very strongly” about standing firm against calls to let the No Sail Order expire without any replacement, even if he would be fired, stating: “if signing the Conditional Sail Order meant that I was resigning or being fired as CDC Director, that was going to happen.” The Conditional Sail Order was ultimately issued on October 30, 2020.
Trump Administration Officials Sought to Manipulate and Block CDC Scientific Reports
- The Select Subcommittee’s investigation uncovered that Trump Administration appointees sought to influence CDC’s scientific reports––attempting to change the publication process, manipulate the content, or block the dissemination of at least 19 different reports that they deemed to be politically harmful to President Trump. For example, new documents shed light on HHS officials’ successful attempts in May 2020 to alter a Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) about the early spread of the coronavirus, and to delay the release of a Health Alert Network advisory about a potentially fatal syndrome called multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C).
- HHS political appointees were ultimately successful in altering or delaying the release of at least five scientific reports, as well as pressuring CDC to change the editorial process of the MMWR. New evidence obtained by the Select Subcommittee reveals that HHS Secretary Alex Azar directed CDC to change the MMWR editorial process in May 2020, because he and other Trump Administration officials were “not happy” that an MMWR did not draw a politically advantageous conclusion desired by the officials. CDC Chief of Staff Kyle McGowan and Deputy Chief of Staff Amanda Campbell informed the Select Subcommittee that Secretary Azar warned that “if the CDC would not get in line, then HHS would take control of approving the publication of the MMWRs.” CDC ultimately acceded to Secretary Azar’s directive.
The Trump Administration Wasted Millions of Taxpayer Dollars on a Failed Celebrity Vanity Campaign that Raided CDC’s Budget in an Attempt to Spin President Trump’s Failed Coronavirus Response Ahead of the Presidential Election
- Amid a failing coronavirus response, Trump Administration officials diverted hundreds of millions of dollars from CDC’s budget to launch what amounted to a celebrity vanity campaign to “defeat despair and inspire hope” about the state of the pandemic in the direct lead up to the November 2020 presidential election. The Select Subcommittee’s investigation confirmed that Mr. Caputo was the driving force behind this campaign, and that he kept the White House apprised as to how it was developing.
- Dr. Redfield told the Select Subcommittee that CDC officials were not involved with the campaign, despite the use of CDC funds. Instead, Mr. Caputo built a team with handpicked private-sector allies—whom HHS listed as “preferred subcontractors” in its solicitation for proposals. In a transcribed interview, HHS Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Mark Weber could not recall any other instance in his 32-year career at HHS where another solicitation enumerated “preferred subcontractors.” Newly revealed contracting documents show that one of Mr. Caputo’s handpicked allies stood to make more than $1.4 million in a six-month period for working on the campaign.
The Trump Administration’s Assault on the Nation’s Public Health Institutions Caused Lasting Harm
- The Trump Administration’s politicization of CDC took a significant toll on the career scientists working tirelessly to protect the nation during a once-in-a-century pandemic. In his transcribed interview, Dr. Butler described how Trump Administration officials’ “intentional discrediting” of CDC’s integrity adversely impacted agency morale: “when people have committed to public service, it’s really demoralizing to be characterized as a villain in the public health response, or even in the future of our country.”
- The degree of control and hostility that the Trump Administration exerted on CDC has fundamentally undermined Americans’ trust in public health. Dr. Cetron explained that this “erosion of credibility and trust really harms the ability to persuade people to take sometimes difficult steps that’s in our joint collective interest.”
- When asked if she believed that allowing CDC to convey accurate scientific advice to the public would have resulted in fewer Americans dying during the early months of the pandemic, Dr. Anne Schuchat, CDC Principal Deputy Director, told the Select Subcommittee: “Yes, I do.” Echoing Dr. Schuchat, Dr. Cetron said that “there are people, you know, who are no longer with us that would have benefited from that kind of very clear messaging.”
Since June 2020, the Select Subcommittee has been investigating the Trump Administration’s rampant political interference across the federal government’s response to the coronavirus crisis to ensure the American people receive a full accounting of what went wrong and to determine what corrective steps are necessary. The Select Subcommittee has released a series of reports detailing its findings, which are based on a review of more than 200,000 pages of documents; more than 100 hours of transcribed interviews with 19 senior officials directly involved in executing the pandemic response at CDC, HHS, and the White House; and sworn testimony obtained at public hearings.
Click here to read today’s report.
Read the full transcribed interviews released today:
- Dr. Jay Butler, CDC Deputy Director of Infectious Diseases
- Dr. Christine Casey, CDC Editor of the MMWR Serials
- Dr. Martin Cetron, CDC Director of the Division of Global Migration and Quarantine
- Kate Galatas, CDC Deputy Director of the Office of Associate Director for Communications
- Bill Hall, HHS Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs
- Dr. Michael Iademarco, CDC Director of the Center for Surveillance, Epidemiology, and Laboratory Services
- Dr. Daniel Jernigan, CDC Deputy Director for Public Health Science and Surveillance
- Dr. Nancy Messonnier, former CDC Director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases
- Dr. Robert Redfield, former CDC Director
- Dr. Anne Schuchat, former CDC Principal Deputy Director
- Dr. Henry Walke, CDC Director of the Center for Preparedness and Response
- Mark Weber, former HHS Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs
- Nina Witkofsky, former CDC Senior Communications Advisor and Acting Chief of Staff