Sep 12, 2020 - Health

Trump health appointees reportedly interfered with CDC COVID-19 reports

Former Trump campaign official Michael Caputo arrives at the Hart Senate Office building.

Former Trump campaign official Michael Caputo arrives at the Hart Senate Office building. Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Trump-appointed health department aides interfered with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s weekly COVID-19 reports “in what officials characterized as an attempt to intimidate the reports’ authors and water down their communications to health professionals,” Politico’s Dan Diamond reported late on Friday.

What it says: "[E]mails from communications aides to CDC Director Robert Redfield and other senior officials openly complained that the agency’s reports would undermine President Donald Trump's optimistic messages,” reports Diamond, citing emails reviewed by Politico and three people familiar with the matter.

  • "[S]ince Michael Caputo, a former Trump campaign official with no medical or scientific background, was installed in April as the health department's new spokesperson, there have been substantial efforts to align ... reports with Trump's statements...," Diamond writes. In one email, obtained by Politico, appointee Paul Alexander, who Caputo described as "an Oxford-educated epidemiologist," accused the reports' authors of trying to "hurt the President."
  • "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," Politico writes.
  • "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 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.'"
  • According to Politico, the aides' efforts to change the language in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports (MMWR) reports on COVID-19, which are written by scientists, were constant throughout the summer and happened as recently as Friday afternoon. Those reports — referred to as the "holiest of the holy" in agency literature by a former health official to the New York Times — are written for scientists and public health experts.

The other side: Caputo defended his aides' actions, telling Politico that "[b]uried in this good [CDC] work are sometimes stories which seem to purposefully mislead and undermine the President’s Covid response with what some scientists label as poor scholarship — and others call politics disguised in science."

  • Caputo specifically praised Alexander, who he said "advises me on pandemic policy and he has been encouraged to share his opinions with other scientists. Like all scientists, his advice is heard and taken or rejected by his peers."
  • Caputo acknowledged on Saturday that Politico’s reporting was broadly accurate, but denied there was any overt pressure applied, per the Times.

Why it matters: Critics have long accused the Trump administration of intentionally downplaying the threat of the coronavirus to the American public.

  • The Politico report comes just days after veteran journalist Bob Woodward revealed that Trump told him in March that his approach to the pandemic was to "play it down," despite knowing about its deadly consequences.

Worth noting: The Biden campaign on Saturday slammed the actions of the appointees described by Politico as "the latest example of Trump's refusal to be honest about the pandemic."

  • “When Donald Trump told Bob Woodward that he wanted to downplay the virus, this is the exact kind of repugnant betrayal that he meant. Instead of telling us the truth about the deadly seriousness of COVID-19, this report is further proof that the Trump Administration has been systematically putting political optics ahead of the safety of the American people," said Kate Bedingfield, Joe Biden's deputy campaign manager.
  • “Vice President Biden has said many times that if we level with the American people about the challenges we face, we can get through them together. But every step of the way, Donald Trump has concealed the truth for his perceived political benefit ... We deserve so much better," Bedingfield said in a statement.

Axios reached out to the CDC for comment, but did not immediately receive a response.

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