The Trump administration regularly interfered with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) process for developing and issuing guidance about the coronavirus, changed scientific reports and undermined top public health officials, a congressional panel said Monday.
The House select subcommittee on the coronavirus crisis said interviews, emails and other documents obtained by the panel showed how political appointees in the Trump administration took control of CDC’s public communications and overruled scientists in an effort to bend the agency to Trump’s rosy outlook on the pandemic.
Former CDC Director Robert Redfield and other top agency staff described to the committee how the White House required CDC guidance to be reviewed by officials at the Office of Management and Budget, who ultimately had veto power over the content even though many had no background in infectious diseases.
The CDC’s former top deputy, Anne Schuchat, and others told the House panel that more Americans would be alive today if the Trump administration had allowed CDC to provide the clear messaging and accurate guidance that public health experts had been consistently calling for.
Political appointees altered or interfered with guidance documents for faith communities, a meatpacking plant, polling locations and voters, restaurants and bars, and coronavirus testing, according to a report from the select committee.
Redfield told committee staff that agency guidance was “compromised” at times, and that the process of getting approval from non-CDC officials gave him “PTSD.”
The House panel has been investigating Trump-era political interference in the coronavirus response for the past two years. The report released Monday is the third installment and offers additional details into how the CDC operated in the early part of the pandemic.
The panel concluded political interference has caused lasting harm to CDC staff morale, as well as a loss of credibility in the nation’s public health institutions.
Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), the panel’s chairman, said the report shows that the previous administration “engaged in an unprecedented campaign of political interference” in an effort to “downplay the seriousness of the coronavirus.”
“This prioritization of politics, contempt for science, and refusal to follow the advice of public health experts harmed the nation’s ability to respond effectively to the coronavirus crisis and put Americans at risk,” Clyburn said in a statement. “As we continue to recover from the coronavirus crisis, we must also continue to work to safeguard scientific integrity and restore the American people’s trust in our public health institutions.”
In one instance, Martin Cetron, director of the CDC’s Division of Global Migration and Quarantine, described how the prior administration blocked a mask requirement for public and commercial transportation in the summer of 2020.
“The evidence was scientifically there” to support a mask requirement, Cetron said, but “despite what seemed like a fairly broad consensus, ultimately that decision was made and we were told that there would be no such use of federal authority for masking in a transportation corridor.”
Cetron said having such a requirement “could have made a significant contribution” to reducing the spread of the virus, especially during the winter surge of 2020.
Cetron also criticized a federal immigration order, known as Title 42, that allowed mass expulsions as the U.S.-Mexico border. Cetron said the order “was not drafted by me or my team,” but was instead “handed to us.”
The order prevents migrants from entering the country on asylum claims, and was cited as a way to prevent the spread of disease.
Cetron said he recalled participating on calls about the order during which then-senior White House adviser Stephen Miller spoke.
“I was concerned that there may be a motivation that was beyond the specific public health agenda,” Cetron said.
He noted that hard border closures “don’t really work as intended,” and other measures such as quarantines, masking and testing would help mitigate coronavirus infections on the southern border.
Still, Redfield signed the order, and it’s been in place ever since.
The Biden administration has used Title 42 to deport nearly 2 million migrants, sometimes returning individuals back to Mexico on the same day, and other times taking weeks to repatriate men, women and children to dangerous conditions in Haiti.