Trump administration officials made “deliberate efforts to undermine the nation’s coronavirus response for political purposes,” a House oversight committee led by Democrats said in a report released Friday.
The committee, which spent months working to interview former Trump officials, said the administration worked to undermine the public health response to the coronavirus pandemic by blocking officials from speaking publicly, watering down testing guidance and attempting to interfere with other public health guidance.
Many pieces of the report were a summation of documents and interviews they’ve released throughout the year, but the report also outlined new examples where health guidance was adapted despite officials’ concerns about the potential harmful effects of the changes.
In one instance, Dr. Jay Butler, the deputy director for infectious diseases at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told the committee he was upset and concerned about guidance he was directed to update in May 2020 for faith communities. He said he feared that some of the altered guidance about masking and other church practices could potentially put lives at risk.
He wrote in an email about the change that he was “very troubled on this Sunday morning that there will be people who will get sick and perhaps die because of what we were forced to do.”
“I was doing a lot of soul searching about whether or not I should have agreed to even make the change in the document,” Butler told the committee when asked about his words. “Clearly, it was a directive, but that was a real struggle as I felt like what had been done was not good public health practice.”
Butler told the committee that while he wasn’t aware of any examples where the guidance had adversely impacted the health of Americans, “that concern will haunt me for some time.”
The report also chronicled deep frustration from then-White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx, who at one point was so upset about a meeting that included doctors whom she called part of a “fringe group” that she told colleagues she would not attend.
“I can’t be part of this with these people who believe in herd immunity,” Birx wrote in an email released by the committee. That approach has been widely decried by public health experts, who note that a previous infection doesn’t guarantee immunity and who say such an approach would most certainly have led to even more hospitalizations and deaths. “These are people who believe that all the curves are predetermined and mitigation is irrelevant — they are a fringe group without grounding in epidemics, public health or on the ground common sense experience. I am happy to go out of town or whatever gives the WH cover,” she wrote.
The report also laid out how one briefing so angered former President Donald Trump that CDC officials were blocked by the Trump administration for more than three months from conducting public briefings.
One official, then-CDC National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases Director Dr. Nancy Messonnier, told the committee Trump was “angered” after she gave a briefing on February 25, 2020, that warned about the danger of Covid-19. She told the select subcommittee she felt “upset” after she received calls from then-CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield and then-HHS Secretary Alex Azar about it.
CNN has reached out to Redfield and Azar for comment.
Another official told the committee the CDC wanted to hold a briefing on the recommendation to wear cloth face masks and inform the public about pediatric cases and deaths from Covid-19 but the Trump administration blocked the request. The committee revealed in its report former CDC Principal Deputy Director Dr. Anne Schuchat said “many of us” in CDC felt they couldn’t speak out about the science of Covid-19 because, the report summarized, White House decisions were being driven by politics.
Another example of weakened guidance in the report is from Birx, who confirmed to the committee that Dr. Scott Atlas, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, was involved in changing testing guidance to advise against testing most asymptomatic people even if they were exposed to the virus — something the report said that is contrary to science-based recommendations. Trump brought on Atlas to the coronavirus task force after seeing him appear on Fox.
CNN has reached out to Atlas for comment.
The committee wrote that Birx stated in her interview that changes made on testing guidance for people who were asymptomatic “were made specifically to reduce the amount of testing being conducted,” the report said. Fewer tests served to “obscure how rapidly the virus was spreading across the country,” it said.
“Trump Administration officials engaged in a staggering pattern of political interference in the pandemic response and failed to heed early warnings about the looming crisis,” the committee said in its summary. “These decisions placed countless American lives at risk, undermined the nation’s public health institutions, and contributed to one of the worst failures of leadership in American history.”
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