Donald Trump’s administration underplayed concerns around the significance of the COVID-19 pandemic and watered down reports laying out public health guidance in a bid to advance the former president’s political goals, a new House report has revealed.
The House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis on Monday published its latest report, drawing evidence from emails, documents and witness interviews to detail how Trump’s White House sought to “compromise the scientific integrity” of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Former CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield said the administration restricted agency officials from participating in media interviews or briefings, at a time when he thought Americans “should have heard from the public health leaders.”
The White House tried to assert control over public guidance on COVID-19, with Trump installing his ally Michael Caputo as assistant secretary for public affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services, the CDC’s parent agency.
Kate Galatas, a senior communications official at the CDC, told the subcommittee that Caputo acted with the intention of making others “feel threatened.”
The subcommittee saw evidence that Caputo blasted Dr. Jay Butler, the CDC’s deputy director of infectious diseases, for being “too alarming” during a June 2020 telebriefing.
In a separate instance, Paul Alexander, a senior adviser to Caputo, wrote to CDC officials to attack one of their reports, which he considered contradictory to information that the White House was putting out, and to allege that the agency’s work was hurting the administration, as well as Americans at large.
In May 2020, Alexander also edited language in a draft CDC statement regarding the pandemic’s death toll in the U.S. to make it “more positive,” according to an email reviewed by the subcommittee.
Redfield also said the administration “compromised” the agency’s COVID-19 guidance in several instances to paint a rosier picture of the pandemic.
Trump officials’ efforts to project a better image of the pandemic in the U.S. affected employee morale but also could have put lives in danger, according to the report.
Dr. Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director at the CDC, told the subcommittee that she believed fewer Americans would have died in the early days of the pandemic if the CDC had been allowed to put out accurate information.
Redfield said that he developed post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of managing the writing process for COVID-19 guidance during his time in office.
The report also demonstrated the extent to which Trump’s White House sought to use the CDC’s authority to push its own political agenda.
Dr. Martin Cetron, the director of CDC’s Division of Global Migration and Quarantine, said his department was “handed” an order to justify deporting asylum-seekers arriving at the U.S. border under Title 42, a 1944 public health law that would immediately return them to their countries of origin while also denying them the opportunity to apply for asylum. Redfield was the one to sign the order.
Cetron also told the subcommittee that the Trump administration was hesitant to issue a mask mandate on public transportation even though the private sector had urged it to do so. Cetron said such rules around masks could have prevented the deaths of many Americans from COVID-19 in 2020.
The subcommittee also found that administration officials tried to block the release “of at least 19 different CDC scientific reports that they deemed to be politically harmful to President Trump.”
Specifically, Health and Human Services officials manipulated a CDC publication known as the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report to obscure early signs of COVID-19 transmission.
House investigators found that the Trump administration also used hundreds of millions of dollars in CDC funds for a campaign, led by Caputo, to “defeat despair and inspire hope” around the pandemic before the 2020 presidential election.
Caputo denounced the findings of the report in an interview with CNN on Monday, adding that the subcommittee never approached him for an interview.
“I don’t care what they say, or how they say it, whether it’s in a political document written pre-election by the Democrats, which I have zero respect for, or whether it’s in other fashions,” he told CNN.
Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), the chair of the subcommittee, said in a statement Monday that the Trump administration “engaged in an unprecedented campaign of political interference in the federal government’s pandemic response.”
“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,” Clyburn said.
The South Carolinian said work still remains to “safeguard scientific integrity and restore the American people’s trust in our public health institutions.”
The subcommittee has been investigating the federal response to the COVID-19 pandemic for over two years. This is its third report to be published.