Trump Aides Said to Try Meddling With CDC’s Covid-19 Reports

U.S. health department spokesman Michael Caputo and other aides asked for the right to read and suggest changes to weekly Covid-19 reports from the Centers for Disease Control, Politico reported.

Communications aides from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services complained to CDC Director Robert Redfield that the agency’s reports would undermine President Donald Trump’s upbeat messaging about the pandemic, according to the report, which cited emails and people familiar with the matter who weren’t identified.

CDC employees pushed back against changes to the Mortality and Morbidity Weekly Report, a document meant to inform the medical community and general public about the status of the Covid-19 outbreak, but have increasingly agreed to allow political appointees review the reports, and have agreed to amend language in some cases, Politico said.

Officials with the CDC didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment by Bloomberg News.

Caputo is a former 2016 Trump campaign official and Republican consultant who joined the HHS in April.

HHS Secretary Alex Azar said in a statement on Saturday, “I have briefed President Trump alongside the nation’s top doctors, and I have insisted that he have direct access to these doctors throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. He has always been receptive to the data and science presented by me and other members of the task force.”

Trump has come under criticism for intentionally downplaying the severity of the virus publicly after saying in an interview with journalist Bob Woodward in early February, reported this week, that he knew how dangerous it was. The U.S. president has defended his comments, saying he didn’t want to cause panic or price spikes.

The administration has also been criticized for what Democratic lawmakers called an attempt to sideline the CDC, typically the public face of the response to a health crisis like the coronavirus pandemic.

“Alarmingly, as COVID-19 has spread,” Representatives Diana DeGette of Colorado and Frank Pallone of New Jersey wrote to the HHS in June, “CDC officials have reportedly stated that White House decisions -- driven by politics instead of science -- have constrained attempts to mount a coordinated response.”

The Democrats noted in their letter to Azar that the administration restricted CDC’s public communications, including by placing the agency’s media briefings on a hiatus for about three months while the pandemic raged.

Four former heads of the CDC also spoke out in July, writing in a Washington Post op-ed that Trump had gone to “extraordinary” lengths to diminish the health agency’s influence.

Trump has also pushed the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, through tweets and public comments, to quickly approve a vaccine against Covid-19. He even suggested in August that “deep state” officials were slowing down vaccine development to ensure one wasn’t authorized before the election on Nov. 3.

Early in the pandemic, Trump pushed the FDA to give emergency authorization to the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for Covid-19, after repeatedly touting the drug in daily press conferences.

The agency did so in March, but had to rescind the clearance in June when studies showed the drug didn’t work against the virus and carried dangerous cardiovascular risks.

That’s raised questions about a another recent emergency authorization by the FDA, to use plasma from recovered Covid-19 patients to treat new patients. Trump announced the authorization at a White House event -- a day after his “deep state” tweet -- at which FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn exaggerated the benefit of the treatment, even though there haven’t been any clinical trials completed to show its efficacy.

Hahn later apologized and the agency’s top spokeswoman, Emily Miller, installed by the administration, lost her post after 11 days.

The medical community has also raised concerns about the influence of Trump on the CDC. For example, the president has said the U.S. should slow down testing because too many cases were being found. Recently, the CDC changed testing guidance to encourage people who may have been exposed but weren’t showing symptoms to not get tested.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

BQ Install

Bloomberg Quint

Add BloombergQuint App to Home screen.