Messonnier, Birx detail political interference in last year's coronavirus response

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

WASHINGTON _ The Trump administration repeatedly interfered with efforts by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last year to issue warnings and guidance about the evolving coronavirus pandemic, six current and former health officials told congressional investigators in recent interviews.

One of those officials, former CDC senior health expert Nancy Messonnier, warned in a Feb. 25, 2020, press briefing that the virus' spread in the United States was inevitable - a statement that prompted anger from then-President Donald Trump and led to the agency's media appearances being curtailed, according to interview excerpts and other documents released Friday by the House select subcommittee on the pandemic.

Subscribe to The Post Most newsletter for the most important and interesting stories from The Washington Post.

The new information, including statements from former White House coronavirus coordinator Deborah Birx, confirms prior reporting and offers additional detail to how the pandemic response unfolded at the highest levels of government.

"Our intention was certainly to get the public's attention about the likelihood . . . that it was going to spread and that we thought that there was a high risk that it would be disruptive," Messonnier told the panel in an Oct. 8 interview. But her public warning led to private reprimands, including from then-Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, Messonnier said.

"I specifically remember being upset after the call" with Azar, Messonnier told congressional investigators. In an event hosted by the conservative Heritage Foundation in January, Azar said that Messonnier was "right" to issue her warning.

Messonnier and Azar did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Other officials also detailed why the CDC held no press briefings in the earliest days of the pandemic between March 9 and May 29, 2020, effectively muzzling the scientific agency as coronavirus rapidly spread across the United States.

Kate Galatas, a senior CDC communications official, told the panel that the White House repeatedly blocked the agency's media requests, including a planned April 2020 briefing that Galatas said would have addressed the importance of wearing face coverings to contain the virus' spread.

"I think it would have been important for timely information to be kept coming from CDC," Galatas said, adding that White House officials like communications official Devin O'Malley told her that the agency's briefings were redundant to White House press briefings led by Trump.

In a statement, O'Malley defended the decision to block CDC from holding its own briefings.

"During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the White House Coronavirus Task Force held daily press briefings that routinely included senior CDC officials," O'Malley said. "It's imperative during a crisis that organizations communicate with a singular, clear, and consistent message, which is why the many communications errors on behalf of the CDC during the last year and a half have lead to a lack of trust for that organization among the American people."

Galatas did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The officials also corroborated that Trump appointees pressured the agency to change its famed Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports to better align with the White House's more optimistic messaging about the state of the virus.

Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., the panel's chairman, called on former CDC Director Robert Redfield to sit for an interview with investigators, citing the ongoing probes. For instance, Clyburn said that two officials have now told the panel that Redfield had called for staff to delete an email from a Trump appointee seeking control over the agency's scientific reports.

"As CDC Director, you appear to have been unwilling or unable to prevent this unprecedented pattern of political interference," Clyburn wrote in a letter to Redfield that the panel publicly released.

Clyburn's panel also is requesting interviews with three longtime CDC officials - Martin Cetron, Daniel Jernigan and Henry Walke - saying that they "possess relevant information regarding key events under investigation." The Department of Health and Human Services did not immediately respond to a question about whether the officials would be made available for interviews.

The panel also released additional excerpts from its interview last month with Birx, who alleged in the new excerpts that White House adviser Scott Atlas worked to curtail access to coronavirus tests last year.

According to Birx, Atlas helped spearhead changes to CDC testing recommendations in August 2020 that called for excluding people who did not have visible symptoms, even if they had been exposed to people infected with the virus.

"This document resulted in less testing and . . . less aggressive testing of those without symptoms that I believed were the primary reason for the early community spread," Birx told the panel. She said that she worked with Redfield and Walke to revise the agency's testing guidance to again include asymptomatic people, with that updated version released on Sept. 18.

A representative for Birx declined a request for comment. Atlas did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Related Content

For many ICU survivors and their families, life is never the same

What the Taliban's youngest fighters tell us about the future of the movement

Pentagon's three-year, $82 million robot competition raises the question: How long until humans are obsolete?