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Trump appointees at the Department of Health and Human Services have worked to alter CDC COVID-19 reports so they would be more politically beneficial to the president, according to Politico. HHS communications aides, led by Trump-appointed spokesman Michael Caputo — a former Trump campaign official and Roger Stone associate with no medical or scientific background — reportedly demanded the right to review and change weekly scientific reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at times complaining that the reports would undermine President Trump’s rosy public pronouncements about the coronavirus.
Trump, of course, has consistently and repeatedly tried to downplay the severity and risk of the pandemic — even though, as the president himself made clear in interviews with journalist Bob Woodward in February and March, he knew he was deliberately misleading the American public. In what clearly appears to have been an effort to protect Trump, the HHS aides pushed for changes to the CDC’s essential and influential Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports (MMWR), which have been put out for decades without direct political interference and are written by career scientists at the agency with the intent of informing the health-care community and public about the risks and realities of COVID-19 and other public-health threats, as the Washington Post explained on Saturday:
MMWRs are written by career experts for scientists and public health specialists and are considered among the most authoritative public health reports because they provide evidence-based information on a range of health topics. The reports are independent scientific publications that undergo rigorous vetting, often with multiple drafts to check data and methodology. The reports are closely held; few individuals at the CDC have access until just before publication. The CDC editorial staff that produces the MMWRs typically sends one-paragraph summaries to HHS and other CDC officials a few days before publication.
In late August, Nature’s Amy Maxmen reported that COVID-19 data was being “guarded closely” by Trump officials and that CDC MMWRs had been “undergoing an unusual amount of review” to the point that they were “posted online long after they might influence outcomes.” On Friday, in response to the new details in the Politico report, Maxmen reiterated that “we are fighting this outbreak blind” as a result of the administration’s political interference. “Make no mistake: We are watching the Trump administration muzzle the CDC,” she added.
Politico reports that, “CDC officials have fought back against the most sweeping changes, but have increasingly agreed to allow the political officials to review the reports and, in a few cases, compromised on the wording, according to three people familiar with the exchanges”:
[Since Caputo] was installed in April as the Health and Human Services department’s new spokesperson, there have been substantial efforts to align the reports with Trump’s statements, including the president’s claims that fears about the outbreak are overstated, or stop the reports altogether. Caputo and his team have attempted to add caveats to the CDC’s findings, including an effort to retroactively change agency reports that they said wrongly inflated the risks of Covid-19 and should have made clear that Americans sickened by the virus may have been infected because of their own behavior, according to the individuals familiar with the situation and emails reviewed by POLITICO.
Caputo’s team also has tried to halt the release of some CDC reports, including delaying a report that addressed how doctors were prescribing hydroxychloroquine, the malaria drug favored by Trump as a coronavirus treatment despite scant evidence. The report, which was held for about a month after Caputo’s team raised questions about its authors’ political leanings, was finally published last week. It said that “the potential benefits of these drugs do not outweigh their risks.”
Furthermore, Caputo at one point accused CDC scientists of trying to “hurt the president,” while Paul Alexander, a former assistant professor of health research who became Caputo’s Trump-appointed senior adviser, once alleged that CDC scientists were “writing hit pieces on the administration.” Both claims are baseless, but Caputo doubled down in a statement to Politico by insisting that the HHS was reviewing CDC reports to “make sure that evidence, science-based data drives policy through this pandemic — not ulterior deep state motives in the bowels of CDC.”
Speaking with the New York Times on Saturday, Caputo did not deny Politico’s reporting beyond claiming that no overt pressure was placed on CDC scientists:
[Paul Alexander] digs into these M.M.W.R.s and makes his position known, and his position isn’t popular with the career scientists sometimes […] That’s called science. Disagreement is science. Nobody has been ever ordered to do anything. Some changes have been accepted, most have been rejected. It’s my understanding that that’s how science is played.
Caputo also commented to the Post on Saturday that it was his “opinion” that “there’s concern across [HHS] that some of the scholarship has been tainted by politics.” Meanwhile, an unnamed HHS official told the Post that Alexander’s accusations were “a paranoid assumption that is not based on anything.” Furthermore, per that same report:
Over the course of the pandemic, top officials including Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus task force response coordinator, and HHS Secretary Alex Azar have wanted to have a “more complete picture” of the CDC’s activity, according to an HHS official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share internal deliberations. The MMWRs were the main focus, the official said.
As CNN noted in its story confirming Politico’s reporting, “Trump loyalists and administration officials have expressed frustration at the agency that is largely made up of career not political employees, which they believe is not working in the best interest of the president” — which is consistent with the ultra-paranoid Trump team’s stance toward virtually all career public servants throughout the federal government. The work to alter or halt the CDC reports is also but more evidence of the Trump administration’s efforts to put politics over public health during a pandemic that already has killed more than 193,000 Americans.
In July, the Post reported that Caputo adviser Paul Alexander sent an email to CDC director Robert Redfield accusing the agency of “undermining the president” by warning the public about the risks COVID-19 posed to pregnant women. That was shortly after Trump and the White House began pressuring the CDC — somewhat successfully — to change its guidance on reopening schools. And earlier this week, Politico reported that Alexander has also been trying to prevent America’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, from speaking out frankly about the dangers COVID-19 pose to children and other topics.
According to the New York Times, “inside the CDC, employees expressed outrage and demoralization on Saturday over the reports of interference.” Also on Saturday, former CDC director Dr. Tom Frieden spoke out in defense of the agency, suggesting the Trump administration’s ongoing interference has undoubtedly cost American lives:
Many other infectious disease and public health experts have expressed their outrage as well, emphasizing how vital MMWRs are and demanding the reports be published without political meddling:
This post has been updated to include additional reporting.