White House officials are putting a target on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, positioning the agency as a coronavirus scapegoat as cases surge in many states and the U.S. falls behind other nations that are taming the pandemic.
Trump administration aides in recent weeks have seriously discussed launching an in-depth evaluation of the agency to chart what they view as its missteps in responding to the pandemic including an early failure to deploy working test kits, according to four senior administration officials. Part of that audit would include examining more closely the state-by-state death toll to tally only the Americans who died directly of Covid-19 rather than other factors. About 120,000 people in the U.S. have died of the coronavirus so far, according to the CDC’s official count.
Aides have also discussed narrowing the mission of the agency or trying to embed more political appointees within it, according to interviews with 10 current and former senior administration officials and Republicans close to the White House. One official said the overall goal would be to make the CDC nimble and more responsive.
Politically, Trump aides have also been looking for a person or entity outside of China to blame for the coronavirus response and have grown furious with the CDC, its public health guidance and its actions on testing, making it a prime target. But some wonder whether the wonky-sounding CDC, which the administration directly oversees, could be an effective fall guy on top of Trump’s efforts to blame the World Health Organization.
“WHO is an easy one,” said one former administration official. “It is foreign body in Switzerland. CDC will be tough to create a bogeyman around for the average voter.”
The moves are among the White House’s efforts to deflect attacks on President Donald Trump and place them elsewhere in the federal bureaucracy. Protecting the president is seen as increasingly important by political aides as the general election approaches in just over four months and criticism mounts from former Vice President Joe Biden, other Democrats and even former national security adviser John Bolton who say the blame rests squarely on Trump himself.
The efforts risk backfiring if they blame career health experts at the CDC whose warnings early in the crisis were dismissed by Trump and his top aides as fearmongering.
Juliette Kayyem, a former Obama-era Homeland Security official who aided the 2009 H1N1 pandemic response, said it can be valuable for agencies to revisit their performance following a crisis — but that there’s no reason to single out the CDC.
“When the history books are written about this crisis, is anyone actually going to believe that America’s abysmal performance and its high death rate was because of some bureaucratic impediment at the CDC?” Kayyem said. “The core of America’s problem is a White House that clearly was not pressed into action in January. And every flaw — from CDC and testing to FEMA and the stockpiles to the supply chain and the states — every systemic problem is rooted in White House malfeasance.”
The discussion is ongoing about the best way to revamp an agency White House aides view as distant from the West Wing — and filled with government career officials who do not respect or follow the Trump agenda.
No single plan for tweaking the CDC has gained traction inside the administration, and the time frame for any evaluation or audit remains unclear. One administration official said aides have discussed having someone inside the administration do the evaluation, as well as possibly bringing in an outside public health expert to lead it.
During a visit to the CDC last week, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar spoke with CDC Director Robert Redfield and other senior officials about how to move forward with the need for reforms of the agency, a senior administration official said. But the official said discussions are still in their early stages, and strongly disputed the suggestion that any evaluation of the CDC would amount to a scapegoating exercise.
A HHS spokesperson said the department does not comment on internal deliberations, and the CDC referred questions to the White House. The White House press office did not respond to a request for comment.
The CDC, with a staff of 20,000 people, has long served as a model for public health agencies around the world, with a global stature held by few U.S. agencies.
But even before the pandemic, Trump administration health officials had discussed shrinking the CDC’s purview — stressing to Redfield following his 2018 arrival that he should consider reorganizing and refocusing the public health agency.
The CDC had taken on a growing range of research projects and new areas of study over the past several years, they argued, a steady expansion that risked distracting from its primary mission as the nation’s leading authority on identifying and responding to infectious disease threats. The CDC later published a strategic framework that defined the agency’s “five core capabilities.”
In Trump’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2021, the administration proposed a roughly 19 percent cut to the agency’s discretionary budget. This year’s budget plan also proposed to refocus the CDC on “its core mission of preventing and controlling infectious diseases and other emerging health issues, such as opioids.”
The coronavirus crisis — and the CDC’s high-profile missteps — have only strengthened the case for an overhaul, said a former senior official who was involved in those discussions.
“The thing to do is take a hard look at the CDC and say, what are the five things that they really need to do, and do it to the exclusion of everything else,” the former official said, adding that Redfield had agreed with the pre-pandemic concerns that the agency’s activities were too scattered. “People have been talking about back to basics, core mission.”
Redfield’s job is not in any danger with an election so close, but officials from across the White House orbit — including the vice president’s office and Office of Management and Budget — have zeroed in on the CDC as a major problem within the coronavirus response.
As the nation’s top public health authority, the CDC has traditionally played a central role in crafting the federal government’s response to health crises and communicating with the public. But the agency has assumed a far lower profile amid the pandemic, following a series of slip-ups that drew the ire of White House officials and hampered the administration’s early response effort.
Initial coronavirus tests developed by the CDC in February proved faulty, delaying widespread plans to screen for the virus and allowing it to spread silently throughout the nation for weeks. An internal HHS investigation released last week found that the faulty test kits were likely contaminated at the CDC.
Messages from CDC officials early in the crisis, while in line with assessments from the scientific community, have embarrassed White House officials trying to contain the political fallout.
Nancy Messonnier, a top CDC official, surprised the White House in late February when she told reporters that a coronavirus outbreak was inevitable — contradicting top officials’ assertions at the time that the disease was largely contained.
In April, Redfield drew Trump’s attention after he warned that the country could face a brutal second wave of the disease come the fall — a statement he was forced to clarify the next day.
And more recently, the agency has come under scrutiny from the White House over guidelines for reopening schools and institutions that were initially seen as overly prescriptive, and from public health experts for conflating two different types of coronavirus tests in its overall testing numbers.
One administration official said the main problem with the CDC was with the data it receives from states about the Covid-19 death toll — creating a larger problem clouding the U.S. response.
“In Pennsylvania, if you have coronavirus and you die from a gunshot wound, it gets classified as a coronavirus death,” the administration official said. “If the data drives the decision making, you want to make sure you have good data. When you have different ways of counting things, it can lead to distortion. The audit was suggested as means to confirm that or disprove that.”