Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield instructed staff to delete an email from a Trump political appointee seeking control over the agency’s scientific reports on the pandemic, a senior CDC official told congressional investigators this week.
Redfield’s apparent instruction was revealed in a Monday closed-door interview with the House subcommittee probing the White House’s coronavirus response, which includes the Trump administration’s interference at the federal public health agency. It came following an Aug. 8 email sent by Paul Alexander, who was then the scientific adviser to Health and Human Services spokesperson Michael Caputo, aiming to water down the CDC’s famed Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports to match President Donald Trump’s efforts to downplay the virus.
“I was instructed to delete the email,” MMWR editor Charlotte Kent told investigators. Kent, who was on vacation when Alexander sent the email, said that she was informed of the request by a colleague who filled in for her, and that she understood the request to be from Redfield. Kent said that she never saw the email herself. “I went to look for it after I had been told to delete it, and it was already gone,” she told investigators on Monday.
Rep. Jim Clyburn, who chairs the House Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, on Thursday warned Redfield and HHS Secretary Alex Azar that instructing staff to delete documents is unethical and possibly a violation of federal record-keeping requirements, according to a letter shared with POLITICO.
“Federal employees have affirmative obligations to preserve documents, and destruction of federal records is potentially illegal,” Clyburn warned in a letter to Redfield and Azar. “Federal law also provides for up to three years of imprisonment for willful destruction of federal records.”
POLITICO first reported on Sept. 11 that Alexander had demanded — and received — the right to review the CDC’s reports, with the approval of top HHS officials. The agency’s MMWR reports, authored by career scientists, are typically free of political interference, and revelations that Trump officials had sought to alter their findings alarmed public health experts who depend on them. Democrats later announced a probe into the Trump administration’s interactions with the federal science agencies.
An HHS spokesperson, while ignoring questions about whether Redfield had asked staff to delete the email, said the House subcommittee had wrongly characterized Kent’s remarks.
“We urge the Subcommittee to release the transcript in full which will show that during her testimony Dr. Kent repeatedly said there was no political interference in the MMWR process,” the spokesperson said.
CDC did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Kent did not respond to a request for comment.
Alexander has since left the department, and Captuo has been on leave. In Alexander’s Aug. 8 email, which was previously obtained by POLITICO, he insisted on an “immediate stop on all CDC MMWR reports due to the incompleteness of reporting.”
“Nothing to go out unless I read and agree with the findings how the CDC wrote it and I tweak it to ensure it is fair and balanced and ‘complete,'” Alexander added, in a breach of the scientific firewall that CDC has maintained for decades.
In the lengthy email, which switches between red and black font and yellow and blue highlighted text, Alexander laid out demands for retroactive changes to the CDC’s reports and insisted that the agency’s career scientists were trying to subvert Trump’s reelection bid.
Redfield has publicly dismissed reports of political interference in the agency’s work.
“I just want to assure you and the other senators and the American public, that the scientific integrity of the MMWR has not been compromised,” Redfield told a Senate committee on Sept. 16. “It will not be compromised on my watch.”
Kent also told investigators that the CDC, in an earlier incident, delayed the publication of a July report on coronavirus spread at a Georgia summer camp following a “requested delay by Dr. Redfield and HHS.” The report was held for two days and instead released about 15 minutes after Redfield concluded testimony to Clyburn’s panel.
Clyburn said that HHS and CDC have been slow to respond to his inquiry. In his letter, he also threatened to subpoena HHS and CDC if they didn’t comply with his subcommittee’s ongoing probe. The subcommittee is still waiting for documents that it requested on Sept. 14, Clyburn said in his letter.
Following Kent’s interview with investigators on Monday, HHS canceled four interviews that had been scheduled with top CDC staff, including CDC Principal Deputy Director Anne Schuchat, Acting Chief of Staff Nina Witkofsky, Acting Deputy Chief of Staff Trey Moeller and communications official Kate Galatas. According to the oversight committee, HHS complained that the panel overstepped the bounds of its investigation during Kent’s interview.
The HHS spokesperson, who requested anonymity, said the subcommittee was “not operating in good faith,” and that it was attempting “to violate basic common practices of attorney-client privilege that protect the interests of the Department but more importantly the witness.”