Trump-appointed communications officials at the US Department of Health and Human Services pushed to change language of weekly science reports released by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention so as not to undermine President Donald Trump’s political message, according to a federal health official.
Amid tension between the administration and the CDC, former Trump campaign official turned chief HHS spokesman Michael Caputo and his team had demanded to see reports out of the CDC before they are released, a senior administration official said. Officials within HHS had defended the demand, saying the CDC fell under the agency’s umbrella and that all communications and public documents needed to be cleared at the top.
A federal official told CNN that in addition to reviewing reports, HHS political appointee Paul Alexander has regularly added his input – often interpreted by CDC officials as political in nature – to weekly scientific reports intended to track the ongoing coronavirus pandemic response. The development marks the latest example of political interference by administration appointees at the nation’s health agencies.
Politico first reported about the pressure being put on the CDC regarding these reports.
The source said some federal health officials at the CDC believe the interference to be an effort to change communications by the CDC’s scientists so as not to contradict the President. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Trump has repeatedly downplayed the significance of the virus, sometimes contradicting his own White House task force doctors.
In a statement to CNN, Caputo defended the actions and praised Alexander.
“Dr. Paul Alexander is an Oxford educated epidemiologist and a methodologist specializing in analyzing the work of other scientists. Dr. Alexander advises me on pandemic policy and he has been encouraged to share his opinions with other scientists,” the statement read. “Like all scientists, his advice is heard and taken or rejected by his peers.”
Caputo went on to criticize the CDC with conspiratorial accusations, saying, “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.”
In a statement to CNN, HHS Secretary Alex Azar said, “As the Secretary of Health and Human Services, 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. President Trump’s science-based decision making has saved lives.”
Trump loyalists and administration officials have expressed frustration at the agency that is largely made up of career not political employees, which they believe is not working in the best interest of the President.
CNN has reached out to the CDC for comment. CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield has in the past defended the agency and denied officials there are putting politics ahead of science.
The federal health official who talked to CNN added there have been efforts this summer by HHS to all together stop the release of some of the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports, some of which have been focused on the latest information on coronavirus.
The source could not provide specifics on what language was changed in these reports by the Trump administration.
On Saturday, Joe Biden’s deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield called the move a “repugnant betrayal” and told CNN in a statement that it is “further proof that the Trump Administration has been systematically putting political optics ahead of the safety of the American people.”
Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, said that as a member of the editorial board of the MMWR, he is “deeply distressed by the reports of political interference and editing of MMWR scientific communications related to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Schaffner, a longtime adviser to the CDC, said it was “absolutely inappropriate. It impugns the integrity of the science-based information being provided to the US public.”
This story has been updated to include statements from Health and Human Services and Dr. William Schaffner.
CNN’s Elizabeth Cohen and Sarah Mucha contributed to this report.