Terry H. Schwadron
Sept. 14, 2020
In those world-takeover spy novels, there always is that untrustworthy political party apparatchik who has been inserted to tell the submarine captain to launch the nuclear missiles or to ensure that the agency follows the official rules of the proletariat.
That’s the image that came to mind this week upon disclosure that political appointees at the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention have been interfering with progress reports and documents about coronavirus. Politico reported that efforts are “what officials characterized as an attempt to intimidate the reports’ authors and water down their communications to health professionals.”
The news outlet describes efforts by politically appointed communications aides to review and seek changes in CDC reports. In some cases, emails from communications aides to CDC Director Robert Redfield and other senior officials openly complained that the agency’s reports would undermine Donald Trump’s optimistic messages about the outbreak, according to emails reviewed by Politico and three people familiar with the situation.
I guess “downplaying” panic in response to coronavirus, as Trump himself described to journalist Bob Woodward, includes taking his virtual Sharpie pen to actual reports about testing and treatment.
Further, Politico says, “CDC officials have fought back against the most sweeping changes, but have increasingly agreed to allow the political officials to review the reports and, in a few cases, compromised on the wording” according to three people familiar with the exchanges.
It is a disturbing pattern of the Trump administration, whether the subject matter is U.S. intelligence about threats, employment and economic projections or coronavirus. Just this week we had examples of a whistleblower from immigration services and a resignation from a Justice Department prosecutorial team with explanations of a serious lean on their work from the White House.
Trump and “Normal”
The CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports by career scientists are used to inform doctors, researchers and the public about how Covid-19 is spreading and who is at risk. “Such reports have historically been published with little fanfare and no political interference, said several longtime health department officials, and have been viewed as a cornerstone of the nation’s public health work for decades.”
Politico says that since April, when Michael Caputo, a former Trump campaign official with no medical or scientific background, joined CDC as its spokesperson, there have been substantial efforts to align the reports with Trump’s statements, “including the president’s claims that fears about the outbreak are overstated, or stop the reports altogether.”
The changes consistently suggest, for example, the risks of Covid-19 have been inflated and that Americans sickened by the virus may have been infected because of their own behavior, Politico’s sources said. Caputo also tried to delay reports warning that there was scant evidence for prescribing hydroxychloroquine, the malaria drug promoted by Trump as a treatment. “In one clash, an aide to Caputo berated CDC scientists for attempting to use the reports to ‘hurt the President’ in an Aug. 8 email sent to CDC Director Robert Redfield and other officials that was obtained by POLITICO. An aide named Paul Alexander told Redfield, “Nothing to go out unless I read and agree with the findings how they CDC, wrote it and I tweak it to ensure it is fair and balanced and ‘complete.’”
Caputo said that the Department of Health and Human Services was appropriately reviewing the CDC’s reports. “Our intention is to make sure that evidence, science-based data drives policy through this pandemic — not ulterior deep state motives in the bowels of CDC,” he said.
Even this week, Alexander tried to stop Dr. Anthony Fauci from speaking about the risks of coronavirus to children, The Washington Post reported.
At the end of the day, in Trump World, we are learning increasingly that we are on our own about mask-wearing, physical distancing, even on whether eventually to take a vaccine. The administration is loath to tell us that these preventive methods are necessary, and simply will not own up to anything but a positive role in handling the virus.
One might wonder what might have been different if coronavirus had hit in a year other than an election year, but I doubt that would make much of a difference.
But the tension between the White House appointees and the CDC and other scientists emerged early in the virus, with HHS Secretary Alex Azar reacting in the spring to perceptions that the government was moving too slowly on treatments and testing. That continued over time as reports emerged from CDC about various local outbreaks and warnings about school opening — against the more optimistic words coming from Trump.
Caputo defended interventions, saying to Politico that “Buried in this good [CDC] work are sometimes stories which seem to purposefully mislead and undermine the President’s Covid response with what some scientists label as poor scholarship — and others call politics disguised in science.”
Well, yes. That’s why we would rather hear from CDC than from the White House about matters of science. Or intelligence. Or the substance of a prosecution case involving Team Trump.
In the meantime, let’s keep an eye hoping that the submarine captain can hold off on launching those fictional missiles.