House Democrats are launching an investigation into how Trump appointees have pressured officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to change or delay scientific reports on coronavirus, citing POLITICO reporting that found political interference in the publishing process.
“During the pandemic, experts have relied on these reports to determine how the virus spreads and who is at greatest risk,” Rep. Jim Clyburn, chair of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, and his Democratic colleagues write in a letter shared first with POLITICO. “Yet HHS officials apparently viewed these scientific reports as opportunities for political manipulation.”
The Democrats’ investigation focuses on the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports, the agency’s long-running series of scientific articles that researchers have looked to for the most current and reliable information on the coronavirus. POLITICO reported on Friday that Health and Human Services public affairs chief Michael Caputo and his scientific adviser Paul Alexander have pressured CDC officials to change the reports, in some cases retroactively, to align with President Donald Trump’s more optimistic message about the outbreak.
“The reports must be read by someone outside of CDC like myself, and we cannot allow the reporting to go on as it has been, for it is outrageous. Its lunacy,” Alexander wrote to CDC Director Robert Redfield and other officials in an Aug. 8 email obtained by POLITICO.
CDC officials have fought the most sweeping demands and continued to publish the reports, but have increasingly allowed Caputo and his team to review draft reports and even compromised on some wording.
Democrats on the House coronavirus subcommittee said they’re moving swiftly to probe Trump appointees’ involvement with the CDC reports, which have traditionally been published without political interference. The panel is demanding that the administration provide communications sent or received by Redfield regarding the reports, as well as additional documents from Caputo, Alexander, HHS Secretary Alex Azar and HHS public relations aide Brad Traverse.
For the first time, the subcommittee — which was stood up in April to evaluate the government’s pandemic response — is also requesting transcribed interviews with political and career CDC and HHS officials, beginning on Sept. 22. Among the list of requested interviews: CDC’s deputy director Anne Schuchat, acting chief of staff Nina Witkofsky, acting deputy chief of staff Trey Moeller, acting communications director Kate Galatas and MMWR editor-in-chief Charlotte Kent. The subcommittee is seeking additional interviews with Alexander and Caputo, following the tentative round of interviews with CDC staff.
“We need to hear directly from the people who are most responsible,” said a Democratic subcommittee staffer. “We can’t afford to wait.”
Public health experts have been outraged by the Trump administration’s interventions with CDC’s reports, noting that the MMWRs have been a cornerstone of global public health work for decades, including a famed 1981 report that revealed the existence of HIV.
Political appointees “should have no role in scientific publications. None,” well-known surgeon and author Atul Gawande wrote on Twitter.
Caputo over the weekend defended his team’s involvement with the reports as he accused a “deep state” at the CDC of working to undermine the president. Caputo also said Alexander, an assistant professor at McMaster University near Toronto, is an “Oxford-educated epidemiologist” who was qualified to critique the CDC’s reports. POLITICO reported last week that Alexander separately attempted to prevent infectious disease expert Tony Fauci from speaking about the risks of coronavirus to children.
Meanwhile, House Energy and Commerce Chair Frank Pallone and Oversight subcommittee Chair Diana DeGette on Monday said they will request a briefing with Azar, who over the weekend defended Trump “as receptive to the data and science presented by me and other members of the [coronavirus] task force.” But the HHS secretary has been largely silent on reports of his communications staff pressuring scientists like Fauci and those at the CDC.