This is beyond outrageous

Sometimes things happen that are beyond human decency. When these things happen and it causes others to lose their lives, we must learn to act to punish those responsible and ensure it never happens again. For more than two years, the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis has been investigating the federal government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic to ensure the American people receive a full accounting of what went wrong and to determine what corrective steps are necessary to ensure our nation is better prepared for any future public health crisis.

Findings released by the Select Subcommittee in this report include the following:

The Trump White House Blocked CDC from Conveying Accurate Information to the Public in the Early Months of the Pandemic

  • After February 25, 2020, CDC telebriefing “angered” President Trump, the
    White House wrested control of coronavirus communications away from CDC and mandated on February 26 that all media requests related to the pandemic be approved by the Office of the Vice President before release. Trump Administration officials blocked CDC from conducting telebriefings on critical, emerging public health issues for three months and restricted scientists from participating in interviews — at a time that coincided with a rapid explosion in coronavirus cases.

The Trump White House Installed Political Operatives Who Sought to Downplay the Risks Posed by the Coronavirus and Retaliated Against CDC Scientists Who Contradicted Trump Administration Talking Points

  • In April 2020, President Trump installed Michael Caputo-his close political ally-as Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), allowing him to take over approval of coronavirus communications. To control CDC messaging, Mr. Caputo used “bully-ish behavior” to make CDC personnel “feel threatened,” according to Ms. Galatas. In one incident, Mr. Caputo expressed that he was “very displeased” with statements made by CDC’s Deputy Director of Infectious Diseases Dr. Jay Butler during a June 12, 2020, telebriefing that he felt were “too alarming.” Dr. Butler told the Select Subcommittee that he “was not really asked back to do telebriefings” after the incident.

Trump Administration Officials Brazenly Interfered with CDC’s Public Health Authorities to Achieve Political Goals

  • Trump Administration officials exploited CDC’s Title 42 authority to effectively close the southern border under the guise of mitigating spread of the virus. Dr. Martin Cetron, Director of CDC’s Division of Global Migration and Quarantine, told the Select Subcommittee that the Title 42 order issued on March 20, 2020, “was not drafted by me or my team,” but was instead “handed to us” — and that he recalled participating on calls about the order during which White House Senior Advisor Stephen Miller “was speaking.” According to a press report, Dr. Cetron told a CDC colleague in March 2020 after receiving the proposed Title 42 order: “I will not be a part of this. It’s just morally wrong to use a public authority that has never, ever, ever been used this way. It’s to keep Hispanics out of the country. And it’s wrong.” Dr. Cetron confirmed that this statement was “consistent with some of my concerns.” Dr. Cetron told the Select Subcommittee he “excused” himself from working on the order, which was ultimately signed by Dr. Redfield.

Trump Administration Officials Sought to Manipulate the Substance and Block the Dissemination of CDC Scientific Reports

  • The Select Subcommittee’s investigation uncovered an unprecedented campaign by Trump Administration appointees to influence the process, manipulate the content, or block the dissemination of at least 19 different CDC scientific reports that they deemed to be politically harmful to President Trump. For example, previously undisclosed documents shed light on HHS officials’ successful attempts in May 2020 to alter a Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) to downplay evidence of the early spread of the coronavirus, and to delay the release of a Health Alert Network (HAN) advisory about a potentially fatal syndrome called multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C).

The Trump Administration Wasted Millions of Taxpayer Dollars on a Failed Celebrity Vanity Campaign that Raided CDC’s Budget in an Attempt to Spin President Trump’s Failed Coronavirus Response Ahead of the Presidential Election

  • Trump Administration officials repeatedly interfered in the process for drafting and issuing CDC coronavirus guidance — overruling CDC scientists to weaken public health recommendations in an apparent effort to benefit President Trump’s perceived political interests. The Select Subcommittee’s investigation has found that Trump Administration political appointees altered or otherwise interfered in a series of coronavirus guidance documents, including CDC’s guidance for faith communities, a meatpacking plant, polling locations, and voters, restaurants, and bars, and testing.

* Amid a failing coronavirus response, Trump Administration officials diverted hundreds of millions of dollars from CDC’s budget to launch what amounted to a celebrity vanity campaign to “defeat despair and inspire hope” about the state of the pandemic in the direct lead up to the November 2020 presidential election. The Select Subcommittee’s investigation confirmed that Mr. Caputo was the driving force behind this campaign, and that he kept the White House apprised about how it was developing.

The Trump Administration’s Assault on the Nation’s Public Health Institutions Resulted in Lasting Harm

  • The Trump Administration’s politicization of CDC took a significant toll on the career scientists working tirelessly to protect the nation during a once-in-a-century pandemic. In his transcribed interview, Dr. Butler described how Trump Administration officials’ “intentional discrediting” of CDC’s integrity adversely impacted agency morale: “when people have committed to public service, it’s really demoralizing to be characterized as a villain in the public health response, or even in the future of our country.”

Trump Administration Officials Interfered with CDC Communications in an Effort to Downplay the Risk of the Coronavirus A. Following President Trump’s Volatile Reaction to a CDC Telebriefing in February 2020, the White House Wrested Control of Coronavirus Communications Away from CDC

* Dr. Redfield told the Select Subcommittee that CDC officials were not involved with the campaign despite using CDC funds. Instead, Mr. Caputo built a team with handpicked private-sector allies-whom HHS listed as “preferred subcontractors” in its solicitation for proposals. In a transcribed interview, HHS Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Mark Weber could not recall any other instance in his 32-year career at HHS where another solicitation enumerated “preferred subcontractors.” Newly revealed contracting documents show that one of Mr. Caputo’s handpicked allies stood to make more than $1.4 million in a six-month period for working on the campaign.

Beginning in late February 2020, the Trump Administration set out to assert complete control over the dissemination of information about the coronavirus to the American public as part of a dangerous effort to benefit President Trump’s perceived political interests. In the following months, Trump Administration officials engaged in a wide-reaching effort to coopt CDC’s public messaging and muzzle CDC scientists — seeking to downplay the virus and control the public narrative about the pandemic.

In the early weeks after a novel coronavirus was first reported on December 31, 2019, CDC performed its traditional role of providing periodic updates to the public. In the first two months of 2020, CDC provided the public a steady stream of information about the coronavirus through periodic telebriefings. CDC held nine telebriefings in January and eight in February, which were primarily led by Dr. Nancy Messonnier, Director of CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, and often featured other CDC experts and local public health officials. These telebriefings provided updates on critical topics such as the spread of the coronavirus in the United States, clinical information and symptoms of infection, screening and testing efforts, and other mitigation measures aimed at keeping Americans safe.2

On February 25, 2020, CDC held a telebriefing during which Dr. Messonnier delivered a dire warning about the risk posed by the coronavirus, stating:

As more and more countries experience community spread, successful containment at our borders becomes harder and harder. Ultimately, we expect we will see community spread in this country. It’s not so much a matter of if this will happen anymore but rather more a question of exactly when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illness . . . . [D]isruption to everyday life may be severe.3

According to Dr. Jay Butler, CDC’s Deputy Director of Infectious Diseases and Incident Manager for CDC’s coronavirus response from May to June 2020, the public needed to prepare “because we had seen the continued progression as the virus spread around the world” and “[t]here was no reason to think it wouldn’t impact North America as well.”4 The following day, on February 26, CDC identified the first non-travel-related coronavirus infection in the United States-consistent with Dr. Messonnier’s prediction of imminent community spread.5

Dr. Messonnier’s warning to the American public reportedly infuriated President Trump.6 In a transcribed interview with the Select Subcommittee, Dr. Messonnier confirmed that her February 25, 2020, telebriefing “angered” President Trump.7 Dr. Anne Schuchat, CDC’s Principal Deputy Director and CDC’s Incident Manager from mid-March to May 2020, similarly told the Select Subcommittee: “The impression that I was given was that the reaction to the morning briefing was quite volatile.”

Within hours, senior Trump Administration officials, led by HHS Secretary Alex Azar, arranged a second briefing for the media to be held later that afternoon, in an apparent effort to control the fallout caused by Dr. Messonnier’s remarks included a sharp decline in major U.S. stock indices. During that briefing, Secretary Azar and the other participants relayed a more optimistic outlook about the risks posed by the coronavirus. For instance, Secretary Azar stated: “This briefing took place, despite the fact that Dr. Messonnier’s statements at the February 25 morning telebriefing were “accurate” and that “there was nothing new to report,” as Dr. Schuchat told the Select Subcommittee during a transcribed interview.10 Over the next few days, other senior Trump Administration officials appeared on various television news outlets to claim the virus was “contained.”

Dr. Messonnier told the Select Subcommittee that she received two calls following her February 25, 2020, telebriefing-the first from CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield, and the second from Secretary Azar. Dr. Messonnier said her call with Secretary Azar lasted about ten minutes and was “quite serious,” noting, “I specifically remember being upset” after the call. Afterward, she said that she discussed the call from Secretary Azar with both her direct supervisor, Dr. Butler, and Dr. Redfield.12

B. TrumpAdministrationOfficialsBlockedCDCScientistsfromRelaying Emerging Public Health Information to the American People Through Telebriefings and Media Appearances

On February 26, 2020, President Trump announced that Vice President Mike Pence would take over leadership of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, replacing. Secretary Azar who had served in that role since late January.13 Later that day, the White House arranged a meeting “for communicators across the federal government” and announced that the Office of the Vice President would serve as “the point within the White House for coordinating communications activities across the . . . government on coronavirus.”14 Marc Short, Chief of Staff for Vice President Pence, led the meeting and explained that all media requests and inquiries from major news outlets relating to the coronavirus had to be approved by the Office of the Vice President.15 On February 28, Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney reportedly sent an email expanding this mandate across the federal government, specifying that all coronavirus-related communications were required to go through Katie Miller, Press Secretary for Vice President Pence.

Once the Office of the Vice President assumed control of the clearance process for coronavirus-related communications, CDC’s ability to communicate accurate public health information to the American public was severely restricted and, in some instances, blocked entirely. Shortly after President Trump’s volatile response to Dr. Messonnier’s February 25, 2020, telebriefing, all CDC telebriefings ceased-and did not resume until mid-June, after the first wave of the pandemic had largely subsided. CDC officials’ ability to engage with other media was also constrained significantly during this time.

CDC officials made repeated requests to the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs (ASPA) at HHS and directly to the Office of the Vice President to hold telebriefings in the United States, thanks to the president and this team’s aggressive containment efforts this disease . . . is contained the spring of 2020.17 But, as Dr. Schuchat explained in her transcribed interview, CDC officials’ requests frequently went unanswered.18 This was confirmed by Dr. Daniel Jernigan, Deputy Director for Public Health Science and Surveillance at CDC and Incident Manager for CDC’s coronavirus response from January to March 2020, who told the Select Subcommittee that CDC officials made numerous requests to hold telebriefings but Trump Administration officials did not grant CDC the approval to move forward.19 Kate Galatas, Deputy Director of the Office of Associate Director for Communications at CDC, explained to the Select Subcommittee: we just wouldn’t get the clearance. So we couldn’t proceed unless we get an affirmative, right? So then we can’t do it. So a lot of times, it was just — we weren’t told yes, so we couldn’t move forward.20

Dr. Redfield told the Select Subcommittee that after Dr. Messonnier’s February 25 briefing,21 “every time we put up a request for a briefing, we weren’t told per se that you’re no longer going to get approval” but “for a while, none of our briefings were approved.” This differed from the clearance process that was in place before February 25, when “whatever we [CDC] put up got cleared.”22 Dr. Redfield expressed his belief that CDC telebriefings should have continued during this period, telling the Select Subcommittee, “I think they [the American public] should have heard from the public health leaders.”

A new document reveals that HHS officials planned to ask the White House for permission to hold a CDC telebriefing in late May 2020 to discuss a forthcoming scientific report from the agency about the spread of the coronavirus from Europe in the early months of 2020. On May 22, 2020, Bill Hall, a senior career official at ASPA, recommended to HHS officials that CDC conduct a telebriefing and issue a proactive press release “to put the paper in proper context and explain to reporters what this means (e.g. early efforts indeed worked, etc.). I really don’t think we want the MMWR to just post without us framing it properly.” He added:

Ryan Murphy, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs at HHS, agreed and stated that either he or Michael Caputo, the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs at HHS, would “circle up with WH on the idea here.”24 The telebriefing did not ultimately occur.25

In at least one instance, a request for a telebriefing was denied by the White House outright. As disclosed by the Select Subcommittee in November 2021, Devin O’Malley, a Special Advisor in the Office of the Vice President, blocked CDC from holding a telebriefing in early April 2020 regarding emerging information, including that coronavirus infections could cause pediatric deaths and that CDC recommended the use of cloth face coverings.26 According to Ms. Galatas, she believed that this was an “important piece of information to share,” but
Mr. O’Malley, “said no, and indicated that . . . he perceived [the] request to be duplicative of what the White House task force was doing when they had their press briefings.” As a result, no CDC telebriefing was held. When asked whether the White House Coronavirus Task Force ended up communicating the same information, Ms. Galatas said, “I don’t remember that they covered those exact topics at that time, or at the level of maybe the depth that we [CDC] would have . . . from that public health perspective.”27 Whether the result of requests going unanswered or explicit denials by the Trump White House, CDC was impeded from being able to communicate developing public health information to the public in the vital early months of the pandemic.

The Trump Administration also prevented CDC officials from conducting press interviews and other media appearances during the early pandemic response. Ms. Galatas explained that while “[t]here was a lot of press interest” about the coronavirus and CDC was submitting requests for CDC officials to participate in broadcast interviews to the White House through ASPA, the Office of the Vice President did not approve CDC’s requests.28 Dr. Schuchat told the Select Subcommittee that she received “several requests” to sit for one-on-one interviews from the media but never received the approval needed to move forward with the appearances.29 Dr. Schuchat recounted that, on one occasion, she asked why a request for her appearance on a morning show had been denied and was told by the White House communications office they “won’t have time to prep her.”30 This explanation was given despite Dr. Schuchat’s 30-year tenure at the agency, where she was responsible for holding media briefings for a range of public health emergencies including outbreaks related to H1N1 flu, Zika virus, measles, and respiratory illnesses affecting children.31 Ultimately, after numerous attempts to communicate with the public, Dr. Schuchat said that “there was a point where they [CDC staff] stopped asking because they [Trump Administration officials] kept saying no.”32

Ms. Galatas described the clearance process put in place by the Trump Administration and the unprecedented shift in CDC’s ability to provide information to the public that occurred as a result, telling the Select Subcommittee that, “[i]t was certainly new for CDC to be told to communicate directly with the Office of the Vice President.” Ms. Galatas said that this was the first time in her 20-year career at the agency where CDC had been “going back and forth directly with . . . the Office of the Vice President communications folks.”33 According to Ms. Galatas, the new requirement that CDC obtain clearance for its communications from the Office of the Vice President “created big confusion” at CDC and “cost us all more time” as it caused “delays in being able to share information.”

C. President Trump Espoused Dubious and Dangerous Coronavirus Advice from the White House Podium

In late May 2020, unnamed CDC scientists reported to the press that they had been silenced by the Trump Administration and that the agency’s efforts to respond to the pandemic “were hamstrung by a White House whose decisions are driven by politics rather than science.” One CDC official told CNN, “we’ve been muzzled. . . . What’s tough is that if we would have acted earlier on what we knew and recommended, we would have saved lives.”35 Dr. Redfield was given draft talking points designed to publicly rebut the report, stating: “CDC has not been muzzled.”36 Dr. Schuchat confirmed to the Select Subcommittee that the sentiment that CDC had been muzzled was widespread among career scientists. She said this was a “feeling that we had, many of us had.”37 Ms. Galatas concurred, saying, “we were not allowed . . . to be able to say what we knew and what we didn’t know and what we were going to do about it.”38

At the same time the White House blocked CDC from communicating with the public about the pandemic, President Trump effectively took over press briefings hosted by the White House Coronavirus Task Force — inserting himself as the primary source of information that many Americans received about the coronavirus. During those White House briefings, President Trump shared questionable information, often contradicting career public health experts and scientists, undermining life-saving public health recommendations, and promoting dangerous and unproven treatments.39

For instance, at April 3, 2020, White House Coronavirus Task Force press conference, President Trump announced the release of new CDC guidance recommending the use of face masks to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. President Trump immediately undermined the guidance, stating: “I don’t think I’m going to be doing it . . . [w]earing a face mask as I greet presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings, queens-I just don’t see it. Maybe I’ll change my mind, but this will pass and hopefully it will pass very quickly.”40 Contrary to President Trump’s comments, subject matter experts at CDC believed the widespread adoption of masking was critical to mitigate the spread of the virus and save lives in this early period. Dr. Butler explained that “it made sense to make very broad recommendations for use of masks when in a community setting, particularly indoors.” Dr. Schuchat stated that she believed that masking “was a critical, essential tool in our toolkit” and expressed that President Trump’s announcement was a “poor way to announce the new policy” during an “accelerating epidemic.” Discussing the harm caused by the announcement, Dr. Schuchat said President Trump’s statement “was potentially confusing to the public and may have reduced use of a preventable tool that we had before we had vaccines or many other means to reduce spread.”

At an April 23, 2020, White House Coronavirus Task Force briefing, President Trump suggested that coronavirus infections might be treated by ingesting disinfectant or exposing the body to ultraviolet light. Before the briefing, President Trump met in the Oval Office with an official from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and discussed research DHS had been conducting regarding ways to inactivate the virus, specifically on outdoor surfaces such as playgrounds.43 President Trump’s press conference comments may have been informed by an April 20 PowerPoint presentation from DHS’ Science and Technology Directorate. Although it is not clear whether President Trump reviewed the slides before speaking to the press, the slides summarize DHS’ findings regarding the stability of the virus on surfaces and in air outside of the human body, including that “[i]ncreased temperature, humidity, and especially sunlight are detrimental to SARS-CoV-2 in saliva droplets on surfaces and in the air.” The DHS research applied to the sanitation of surfaces and personal protective equipment (PPE).

In remarks to the public after his meeting with the DHS researcher, President Trump suggested to the American people that these “emerging” findings might apply inside the human body -despite the serious and obvious danger of ingesting disinfectant.45 In the following weeks, poison control centers across the country saw a large increase in the volume of calls seeking assistance related to the ingestion of disinfectants.

Originally published at https://worldofdtcmarketing.com on October 20, 2022.

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