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CDC Director Robert Redfield. Photo: Alex Edelman-Pool/Getty Images

Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was overruled when he pushed to extend a "no-sail order" on passenger cruises into next year, according to two sources with direct knowledge of the conversation today in the White House Situation Room.

Why it matters: Cruise ships were the sites of some of the most severe early coronavirus outbreaks, before the industry shut down in March. And their future is just the latest disagreement between Redfield and members of President Trump's team.

The undermining of Redfield has been the source of much consternation among public health officials inside the administration, who argue that a politically motivated White House is ignoring the science and pushing too aggressively to reopen the economy and encourage large gatherings.

  • Public health officials have privately complained that the thwarting of Redfield on the cruise ship ban is politically motivated because the industry is a major economic presence in Florida — a key battleground state where the polls are statistically tied.
  • The White House denies politics played any role in the decision.

Behind the scenes: In a meeting of the Trump administration's coronavirus task force today in the Situation Room, Redfield argued that the government's ban on cruise ships, which expires on Wednesday, should be extended until February 2021 because of the virus' severity and the vulnerability for spread on cruises.

  • Vice President Mike Pence, who chaired today's meeting, told Redfield that they would be proceeding with a different plan, according to two task force members.

What's next: Instead of following Redfield's desire — which a number of White House officials have argued is unreasonable — the Trump administration plans to extend the no-sail order for cruise ships until October 31. (That matches the endpoint of the cruise industry's self-imposed ban.)

  • The administration hopes that between now and then, the cruise industry can demonstrate it has a plan to ensure "ships can sail in a safe and responsible manner and that the companies assume the burden of dealing with any possible outbreaks," said a task force member involved in the talks.
  • Representatives of the cruise industry are set to meet with the Trump administration on Friday to "describe their transformation and dozens of ways that they will mitigate risk and ensure public health," according to a White House official.
  • "And in that meeting there will be a discussion and afterwards a decision will need to be made about whether the order needs to be extended," the White House official added. "These things can be extended for a month and then we can reassess the conditions on an ongoing basis."

Between the lines: The White House has been at odds with Redfield for months now, and top officials including President Trump have been publicly dismissive of some of Redfield's statements about the coronavirus and the public health measures required.

  • Privately, some White House officials describe Redfield with disdain and try to paint his agency as a hotbed of the "Deep State," full of career officials determined to thwart President Trump.
  • One senior official added that the cruise ship decision "is an example of the task force weighing all the equities of the departments and agencies represented on the task force and making a decision that properly balances the public health impacts and the economic ramifications on the country."

The other side: White House deputy press secretary Brian Morgenstern rejected the officials' complaints that election year politics influenced the cruise ship decision.

  • "The president, the vice president and the task force follow the science and data to implement policies that protect the public health and also facilitate the safe reopening of our country," he said. "It is not about politics. It is about saving lives."
  • The CDC did not respond to requests for comment.

Go deeper

Updated Dec 22, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Trump turns on everyone

Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

President Trump, in his final days, is turning bitterly on virtually every person around him, griping about anyone who refuses to indulge conspiracy theories or hopeless bids to overturn the election, several top officials tell Axios.

The latest: Targets of his outrage include Vice President Pence, chief of staff Mark Meadows, White House counsel Pat Cipollone, Secretary of State Pompeo and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

DHS warns of "heightened threat" because of domestic extremism

Supporters of former President Trump protest inside the US Capitol on January 6, 2021. Photo: ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP via Getty Images

The Department of Homeland Security on Wednesday issued an advisory warning of a "heightened threat environment" in the U.S. because of "ideologically-motivated violent extremists."

Why it matters: DHS believes the threat of violence will persist for "weeks" following President Biden's inauguration. The extremists include those who opposed the presidential transition, people spurred by "grievances fueled by false narratives" and "anger over COVID-19 restrictions ... and police use of force[.]"

OIG: HHS misused millions of dollars intended for public health threats

Vaccine vials. Photo: Punit Paranjpe/AFP via Getty Images

The U.S. Office of Special Counsel alerted the White House and Congress on Wednesday of an investigation that found the Department of Health and Human Services misused millions of dollars that were budgeted for vaccine research and public health emergencies for Ebola, Zika and now the COVID-19 pandemic.

Why it matters: The more than 200-page investigation corroborated claims from a whistleblower, showing the agency's violation of the Purpose Statute spanned both the Obama and Trump administrations and paid for unrelated projects like salaries, news subscriptions and the removal of office furniture.

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