Top public health officials have revealed how President Donald Trump's administration hindered efforts to communicate and provide guidance to the American people during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has taken almost 760,000 lives in the U.S.
Documents collected and interviews conducted by a House committee investigating the coronavirus crisis "have shed new light on the persistent pattern of political interference in the pandemic response by Trump White House officials and political appointees," the committee said in a statement Friday.
Led by Rep. James Clyburn, the committee outlined how the administration blocked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from holding briefings to inform the public, altered health guidance for political purposes, weakened testing guidelines to bring down testing numbers and directed officials to destroy evidence of interference.
During an early briefing on Feb. 25, 2020, when U.S. cases were still very low, the Director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, Nancy Messonnier, told reporters that measures to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus would not remain successful for long, and that "disruption to everyday life may be severe."
"Ultimately, we expect we will see community spread in this country," Messonnier said. "It's not so much a question of if this will happen anymore but rather more a question of exactly when this will happen."
Messonnier told the committee in her recent testimony that those early televised statements were meant to inform the public of the coming threat, but angered President Trump.
"I heard that the President was unhappy with the telebriefing," she said. Following the statements, she said former CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield and Health and Human Services Sec. Alex Azar called Messonnier, contributing to a "very stressful time."
"I specifically remember being upset after the call" with Azar, she added.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Anne Schuchat with Dr. Robert Redfield, Vice President Mike Pence and President Donald Trump.
Dr. Anne Schuchat, a deputy director at the CDC, was asked about reports her organization had been "muzzled" and was "hamstrung" by the administration, which declined requests for CDC officials to speak to media and preferred the White House's Coronavirus Task Force to hold pandemic briefings instead.
"That is the feeling that we had, many of us had," Schuchat said.
She also spoke about inconsistencies in the Task Force's messaging, which she said were "not, in general, an adequate way" to convey important information that would keep Americans safe.
Schuchat referred to a statement by the president during a press briefing by the Task Force on the same day the CDC released its recommendations for the use of face coverings.
"The mask is going to be really a voluntary thing," the president said during the briefing on April 3, 2020. "If you do it, you don't have to do it. I'm choosing not to do it, but some people may want to do it, and that's okay."
Schuchat said, "That mixed messaging or contradiction of the message was unfortunate."
By early March, the CDC stopped giving briefings completely until mid-June 2020, according to CDC communications deputy Kate Galatas, who told the committee, "We were not able to gain clearance to have a telebriefing."
The committee called it "a period that coincided with the rapid explosion in coronavirus cases across the country."
"A critical piece of any public health response, is to share what you know, share what you don't know, tell people what they can do to keep themselves and their families safe," Galatas said, adding that CDC officials wanted to get the word out about its recommendations but were sidelined by the Task Force.
Tasos Katopodis/Getty From left: Dr. Anthony Fauci, Dr. Deborah Birx, Vice President Mike Pence, Seema Verma and Dr. Robert Redfield.
Devin O'Malley, a communications official for Task Force lead, Vice President Mike Pence, defended the decision to block the CDC from holding its own briefings in a statement to the Washington Post. "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," he said.
The committee also alleges that Trump administration officials altered policies, citing an email from former Office of Management and Budget Director Russell Vought who told CDC Director Redfield that the Task Force would want to view and "process" guidelines written for meatpacking plants.
"We need to make sure it comes in as normal to run our clearance process. Can you make sure your team knows that?" Vought wrote in April 2020.
"Director Redfield later agreed to soften the language in the meatpacking guidance, at the behest of former Vice President Pence's Chief of Staff, Marc Short, and former Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Purdue," the committee said.
Similarly, an email from former Deputy Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council Jennie Lichter shows that the administration influenced the CDC's reopening guidelines for churches.
"I'm attaching some edits to the faith community guidance," Lichter wrote in April 2020. "CDC appears to have accepted virtually none of the comments or edits submitted by me, DOJ, or anyone else on this very sensitive section last time, and that is unacceptable."
Tasos Katopodis/Getty Dr. Scott Atlas
Former special advisor to the president Dr. Scott Atlas also played a role in changing CDC guidelines, committee investigators said, when he was involved in a August 2020 decision to say that "most asymptomatic people should not be tested even if they were exposed to someone with the virus."
Dr. Deborah Birx — who testified to investigators that Trump was more focused on reelection than protecting Americans during the pandemic — confirmed to the committee that Atlas' changes were made specifically to reduce the amount of testing being conducted across the country.
Revised testing guidelines — authored by Birx — were issued a month later and included a recommendation for testing for "anyone who comes into close contact with an individual infected with the coronavirus."
Another CDC official, Dr. Christine Case, told the committee about receiving instructions to delete an email from Health Department appointee Dr. Paul Alexander which "directed the CDC to stop the publication of truthful scientific reports he believed were damaging to then-President Trump," the committee said.
Casey said she was ultimately told that CDC Director Redfield said to delete the email even though she found it "a little unusual" and taking that action made her feel "uncomfortable."
Samuel Corum/Getty From left: Dr. Robert Redfield, Health and Human Services Sec. Alex Azar and Nancy Messonnier.
"This was … unprecedented with somebody in an accusatory tone requesting to stop the presses" on the scientific reports, she said, adding, "It felt like it was a consequential email. It was unprecedented."
Casey also said she deleted the email but kept a printed copy because "I felt that it was important to keep a copy. If there was ever questions of what had happened, I would have a record."
Committee Chairman Clyburn sent a letter on Friday to Dr. Redfield to request his participation in the investigation into the Trump administration's political interference in the pandemic response, actions that allowed the virus to spread and those taken instead to benefit the president's reelection campaign.
"As the former Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force," Clyburn wrote, "you played a key role in events under investigation."