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In the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, as cases spread rapidly and deaths mounted, then-President Donald Trump threatened to withdraw help for governors who didn’t treat him “nicely,” and his aides barred the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from giving briefings for a staggering six months, according to a trove of new information released this week.
Emails between top officials from the CDC and Trump administration, released by a House panel on Friday, also revealed that Trump aides strong-armed the CDC into watering down its public-health guidance for churches in May 2020, just as houses of worship were emerging as particularly risky settings.
In early May, the CDC released two reports, one of which detailed how a pastor at an Arkansas church and his wife unwittingly spread the virus to 26 others, which came to balloon into a cluster of 61 people, of whom four died. The second report found that 87 percent of attendees at a choir practice in Washington had caught the virus.
The message, and accompanying recommendations that churches hold virtual or drive-in services only, was a stark contrast to Trump’s ridiculously rosy suggestion in April that the country should reopen entirely and be “raring to go by Easter.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, when the CDC sent its draft guidance for religious communities to the White House on May 21, 2020, Trump aides immediately pushed back, the emails show.
Aides expressed concern that the guidance “seems to raise religious liberty concerns” and suggested the CDC be allowed to publish guidance “contingent on striking the offensive passages.”
White House lawyer May Davis called previous CDC guidance “problematic” and suggested proposed changes “on top of Kellyanne [Conway] edits” that “removes all the tele-church suggestions.” She added, “[T]hough personally I will say that if I was old and vulnerable (I do feel old and vulnerable), drive-through services would sound welcome.” It’s not clear what the “offensive passages” were but the final guidelines didn’t include any suggestions for tele-church or drive-in services.
The next day, Trump outright told state governors in a press briefing that they should allow churches to reopen completely.
According to extracts of a forthcoming book by New York Times journalists Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns, obtained by The Hill this week, Trump went even further with governors, threatening to withdraw pandemic aid if they didn’t offer “reciprocity” or treat him “nicely.”
The book, This Will Not Pass, “depicts Trump as a mafia don, demanding loyalty from supplicants and political opponents alike, by turns using the largest bully pulpit in the world to beat them into submission and cajoling them in private to offer support,” The Hill wrote.
In one call with governors detailed in the book, Trump threatened to cut federal funding for most states that had deployed the National Guard to help battle COVID. He told them that if they wanted the federal government to cover the costs, “You have to call me and ask me nicely.”
In another call with California Gov. Gavin Newsom, Trump said he would allow a COVID-addled cruise ship moored in San Francisco to dock so passengers could be treated—but he would be watching out for “the reciprocity” from Newsom.
“President Trump’s comments, his rhetoric ,and his almost flippant attitude in some contexts made it difficult for a governor like me to really push the seriousness of the medical emergency that we’re in,” Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson told the book’s authors.
Meanwhile, House Democrats also released excerpts of an interview with former CDC Director Robert Redfield on Friday in which he revealed the Trump administration blocked the CDC from giving public briefings, bar a few exceptions, for the first six months of the pandemic.
It came after Nancy Messonnier, then the director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, issued an early warning about the severity of the looming pandemic—something the White House was desperately trying to downplay. She was sidelined and later resigned.
“This is one of my great disappointments... [t]hat HHS basically took over total clearance of briefings by CDC,” Redfield said. “None of our briefings were approved.”
He said it caused him “PTSD for probably six months.”