Team Trump pushed to politically alter CDC reports on coronavirus

When Trump's appointees didn't like the CDC's coronavirus reports, they didn't just complain. They also tried to bring them in line with Trump's rhetoric.
Image: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announce first Ebola case diagnosed in the USA.
The entrance to the main campus of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Ga., on Sept. 30.JOHN AMIS / EPA
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By Steve Benen

To the extent that Michael Caputo was known in political circles, he was recognized as a notorious Republican political operative and a Roger Stone protégé. Nevertheless, earlier this year the White House tapped Caputo, who had no meaningful background in health care or science, for a leadership role at the Department of Health and Human Services.

And now we're getting a closer look at the consequences of this personnel decision. Politico reported:

The health department's politically appointed communications aides have demanded the right to review and seek changes to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's weekly scientific reports charting the progress of the coronavirus pandemic, in what officials characterized as an attempt to intimidate the reports' authors and water down their communications to health professionals.

The report noted emails to CDC leadership in which members of Team Trump complained about evidence-based data that contradicted Donald Trump's political message, leading to politically inspired edits of official reports.

According to Politico's account, Caputo and his team "tried to halt the release" of some politically inconvenient HHS reports, and in another instance, Caputo and his deputies sought to "retroactively change agency reports" they didn't like, even after they'd already been issued.

Of particular interest are the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports, which Politico noted are "authored by career scientists and serve as the main vehicle for the agency to inform doctors, researchers and the general public about how Covid-19 is spreading and who is at risk." It's these same reports that Caputo and his operation have reportedly tried to change in order to bring them in line with the president's rhetoric, reality be damned.

These Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports (MMWRs) are seen as the "holiest of the holy" in professional circles, but Trump's political appointees apparently didn't much care. The priority was to promote the White House's election-year messaging, not disseminate accurate information to public-health officials and medical experts around the world.

In fact, in one email, HHS political appointee Paul Alexander complained to CDC leaders that these reports appeared to him to be "hit pieces on the administration."

CNN had a related story that added, "Trump loyalists and administration officials have expressed frustration at the [CDC] that is largely made up of career not political employees, which they believe is not working in the best interest of the president."

Of course, the CDC doesn't exist to advance Trump's interests; it exists to advance the public's interests.

These revelations come about a month after the CDC announced strange new coronavirus testing guidelines, telling healthy Americans they "do not necessarily need a test," even if they've been exposed to COVID-19, contradicting earlier advice.

A month earlier, four former CDC directors -- spanning Republican and Democratic administrations -- co-authored a Washington Post op-ed decrying the politicization of science in the Trump administration.

Their complaints were understandable. Not only has the president repeatedly undermined or contradicted CDC guidance during the pandemic crisis, Trump also went so far as to amplify a missive from a former gameshow host, who accused CDC scientists, among others, of lying to the public for political reasons.

I don't know when Trump will leave office, but I know the clean-up work after he and his team have exited their offices will take a while.