At Hearing, GAO and Experts Detail Trump Administration’s Unprecedented Political Interference in Coronavirus Response
Washington, D.C. (April 29, 2022) – Today, the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, chaired by Rep. James E. Clyburn, held a hearing with Government Accountability Office (GAO) officials and scientific experts to discuss a new GAO report on scientific integrity at public health agencies, and the Select Subcommittee’s findings of extensive political interference by the Trump Administration in the nation’s coronavirus response. The hearing detailed the harm caused when political officials interfere with scientific work and how implementing the recommendations proposed in GAO’s report and other steps taken by the Biden Administration are helping to prevent the type of political interference the Select Subcommittee continues to unearth and document.
Chairman Clyburn said in his opening statement, “Before President Biden took office, our public health officials had to contend with more than just a deadly virus. As Americans were dying by the thousands, then-President Trump and his political appointees made the calculation that his re-election would be more likely if the seriousness of the pandemic were downplayed. Pursuing this political strategy, Trump Administration officials criticized and interfered with the work of the scientists at our nation’s public health agencies because the science of the coronavirus showed a grave threat to the American people. These actions made our country sicker and did immense damage to our public health workforce and to public trust in our scientific institutions.”
Today’s witnesses were: The Honorable Gene L. Dodaro, Comptroller General of the United States, who joined in testimony with Candice Wright, Director, Science, Technology Assessment, and Analytics, GAO; Dr. Sonja Rasmussen, Former Editor-in-Chief, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (2015 – 2018), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; and Anita Desikan, Senior Analyst, Center for Science and Democracy, Union of Concerned Scientists.
During today’s hearing, the witnesses testified to the following:
The Trump Administration’s Prioritization of Politics over Public Health Led to the Suppression and Alteration of Accurate Scientific Information.
Ms. Desikan stated that the Trump Administration’s attacks on science had “enormous consequences” for the nation’s pandemic response, including “a lack of scientific information being shared with the public, an inability to communicate during a crisis situation like COVID-19, and an inability to use science to protect people’s health and safety.” Ms. Desikan said that her organization has documented 204 attacks on science by the Trump Administration, including 29 that were related to the coronavirus.
In light of new evidence released by the Select Subcommittee showing that Trump White House officials instructed CDC to remove information they found “offensive” from guidance for faith-based communities, Rep. Jamie Raskin asked Dr. Rasmussen whether she ever witnessed similar conduct during her 20-year tenure at the agency. Dr. Rasmussen—who left CDC in 2018—responded that she “never saw that in my time at CDC” and reiterated the importance of allowing CDC scientists to “speak to the American people and present their results,” including being transparent about what is known and not known about the virus.
Career Scientists Did Not Report Political Interference out of Fear of Retaliation and Doubt About Whether Appropriate Action Would Be Taken.
Mr. Dodaro and Ms. Wright stated in their written testimony that GAO’s investigation found that FDA and CDC public health officials believed that “potential political interference may have resulted in the politically motivated alteration of public health guidance or delayed publication of COVID-19-related scientific findings” during the coronavirus crisis. Explaining why career scientists were reluctant to report political interference, Mr. Dodaro testified that “there weren’t procedures in place that needed to be put in place, including protections of people against retaliation.”
Asked by Rep. Carolyn Maloney why career scientists feared retaliation, Ms. Wright said that GAO spoke with employees who expressed doubt whether agency leaders “were actually going to take any action” based on “media reports that they were seeing of other incidents.” Ms. Wright said that GAO spoke with numerous individuals during their investigation with concerns “about the effects on morale within their agencies.”
Ms. Desikan described “a culture of fear within the agencies,” caused by the Trump Administration’s persistent scientific integrity violations. Ms. Desikan said that surveys conducted by her organization found that federal scientists felt their agency was more effective in carrying out their missions when “they could do their jobs and communicate about their work without undue political interference.”
The Trump Administration’s Assault on Science Undermined Americans’ Trust in Public Health Institutions—Leaving the Nation Vulnerable to Misinformation and Future Public Health Threats.
Ms. Desikan testified: “The Trump Administration’s numerous attempts during the pandemic to silence experts from speaking to the public and line-editing, delaying, or blocking the release of scientific documents deeply eroded public trust in scientific institutions.” She said that “the lack of clear scientific information coming from federal scientists opened the door to the enormous spread of online misinformation and disinformation” regarding the coronavirus, “the effects of which we are still dealing with to this day.”
In response to a question from Rep. Bill Foster about the Trump Administration’s advocacy of unproven coronavirus treatments like hydroxychloroquine, Ms. Desikan noted that with scientists sidelined, coronavirus misinformation flowed directly from public officials: “it is very difficult when you have political officials stating, ‘Don’t listen to our federal scientists, don’t listen to the expert opinions, and instead listen to something else that’s unproven.’”
Dr. Rasmussen explained it is essential “that the American people know that they can trust the guidance that’s coming from” our public health agencies and that the agencies are “free of political influence.” She said, “Our ability to protect the health of Americans during future public health threats depends on it.”
More Must Be Done to Protect Science from Political Interference and Restore Public Trust.
Mr. Dodaro said that GAO recommends that public health agencies institute procedures to report and investigate political interference, including “a proper institutional-approved process for how to report these concerns, how they’ll be investigated, how they’ll be disposed of, and how there would be an official response.”
Mr. Dodaro explained that GAO’s recommendations would ensure “that nothing that is alleged goes uninvestigated” and is “dealt with properly” and would “also have a salutary benefit by empowering the employees to feel more protected in raising this issue, so thereby it may have a deterrent effect as well, to help people not move in this direction to try and interfere with the process, knowing that there’s a well-established process for investigating such matters.” Mr. Dodaro noted that the scientific integrity reforms “should enhance public trust if implemented properly.”
“Today’s hearing has revisited a dark chapter in the history of our nation’s public health agencies. Adding to the incredible burdens they had to shoulder during the pandemic, career scientists had to contend with an Administration that continually undermined their scientific independence, integrity, and decision-making,” Chairman Clyburn said in his closing remarks. “I applaud the Biden Administration’s efforts to restore scientific integrity and independence. The Biden Administration has placed its trust in our country’s best doctors, scientists, and public health experts, and they have guided us out of the chaos and confusion we faced early in the pandemic—allowing us to move safely forward beyond the crisis.”
Click here to view the Chairman’s opening statement in full.
Click here to watch the full hearing and view the witnesses’ written testimonies.