About a week before Election Day 2020, NBC News reported on conditions inside the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the resulting portrait was unsettling: CDC insiders described a "toxic" atmosphere, created by, among other things, political pressure on the agency.
One veteran CDC staffer said, "The house is not only on fire; we're standing in ashes."
As we discussed at the time, there was no reason to see comments like these as hyperbolic. As congressional investigations into Trump White House abuses continued, the evidence of misconduct mounted: One CDC official testified she was directed to get rid of evidence after a Trump appointee allegedly tried to exert influence over a key agency report. Others testified that the Trump White House — during the pandemic — sent edits to CDC reports from people who had no business trying to edit CDC reports.
In one especially jarring example, Trump appointees allegedly interfered with Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports (MMWRs) — seen as the "holiest of the holy" in professional circles — while falsely accusing CDC professionals of trying to undermine Donald Trump politically by releasing accurate information to the public.
New revelations reinforce concerns that the problem was even worse than we'd feared. Politico reported on new documents — released by the House committee specifically tasked with investigating the government's response to the Covid-19 crisis — that suggest the more the CDC tried to warn the public about the public health threat, the more the Republican White House intervened.
The emails and transcripts detail how in the early days of 2020 Trump and his allies in the White House blocked media briefings and interviews with CDC officials, attempted to alter public safety guidance normally cleared by the agency and instructed agency officials to destroy evidence that might be construed as political interference.
That last point was especially galling: The Trump White House and its appointees engaged in political interference of the CDC during a pandemic, and then tried to cover it up. From a related CDC report:
In another interview, Dr. Christine Casey, an editor of CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, described an email from Trump appointee and former US Health and Human Services adviser Paul Alexander that she saw as a request to stop a report.... Casey said she was instructed to delete the email and was told the direction came from [former CDC Director Dr. Robert] Redfield.
This dovetails with an NBC News report from several months ago which noted that Dr. Charlotte Kent, chief of the Scientific Publications Branch and editor-in-chief of the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, also stated in closed-door testimony "that she had been instructed to destroy an email and that she understood the order came from Redfield."
Stepping back, reporting like this brings two foundational truths into focus. First, members of Team Trump made a great many unforgiveable mistakes during the pandemic, but their efforts to exert political control over the CDC during a pandemic, doing lasting harm to the agency, are among the most indefensible. In a normal administration, this would be a controversy that helped define a presidential term.
And second, Donald Trump may be gone from the White House, but our understanding of his many scandals continues to grow.
Kyle McGowan, a former chief of staff at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is on record arguing that it will "take years to undo" the damage done to the agency during Trump's presidency. It's a daunting part of President Joe Biden's to-do list.