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Trump’s attempts to corrupt the CDC, explained

Trump has undermined the government entity tasked with protecting us from a pandemic.

President Donald Trump holds a campaign event in Henderson, Nevada, on September 13, 2020.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

President Donald Trump and his administration are actively trying to undermine and corrupt the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the country’s premier public health agency, in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The CDC is supposed the be the country’s top agency in the fight against diseases — it’s in the organization’s name. But as news reports have made clear over the past several months, the Trump administration has repeatedly interfered with the CDC’s work, hindering its ability to respond to the ongoing pandemic.

The latest news comes from Dan Diamond at Politico, confirmed by the New York Times: A vocal Trump ally and spokesperson for the US Department of Health and Human Services, Michael Caputo, and a scientific adviser he hired, Paul Alexander, are pushing the CDC to alter or halt reports that are unflattering to the president and his administration’s response to Covid-19.

The efforts don’t seem to have yet led to “sweeping changes” for the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports, which are highly regarded public health bulletins published for professionals and scientists. But, according to Diamond, they’ve led to delays with a few reports, and there are general concerns about political interference at the agency, whose public health mission is supposed to be independent of politics.

In a recent example, the CDC held a report on hydroxychloroquine, which Trump hyped up as a treatment for Covid-19, for a month. The report concluded that “the potential benefits of these drugs do not outweigh their risks.” Caputo’s team suggested — without any publicly provided evidence — that the report’s authors had political leanings against Trump.

The Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports are highly regarded in the public health world. In 1981, one of the reports was the first to document what turned out to be HIV/AIDS among five gay men. For decades, the reports have provided rigorous evidence on various medical and scientific developments, from tuberculosis to the opioid epidemic to Covid-19.

The Trump administration, however, began to take issue with the CDC reports after officials interpreted one released in May as critical of the Trump administration’s response to Covid-19 — noting, among other issues, the US’s “limited testing.”

CDC officials believed, Diamond reported, that the report “was merely recounting the state of affairs and not rendering judgment on the response.”

Since then, the administration has demanded to see the reports early and pushed to make changes, including to reports that were already published. While the CDC hasn’t reportedly agreed to major alterations, officials and researchers have sometimes compromised on wording.

This is just the latest example of the Trump administration attempting to meddle in the CDC’s work. Between getting the CDC to effectively recommend less testing for Covid-19 (which Trump said he wants), forcing the agency to change other guidelines, and muzzling officials’ public appearances, Trump has tried to bend the traditionally apolitical agency to his will.

Among all these stories is a concerted attempt by Trump and his people to mask the true scope of the epidemic. Whether it’s empirical evidence that Trump’s response to Covid-19 was slow or testing revealing more cases than the president would like, the “problem” isn’t that the CDC is doing anything wrong but that the truth the CDC has helped expose shows the Trump administration has failed in its response to the coronavirus.

The reality is the US has suffered one of the worst Covid-19 outbreaks in the world, and America still reports more daily new deaths due to the disease than all other developed nations. No amount of meddling in the CDC’s work will change that.

The Trump administration has repeatedly interfered with the CDC’s work

Last month, the CDC changed its testing guidelines to no longer recommend testing for people who have no Covid-19 symptoms but have come into close contact with a person known to be infected. It was effectively a recommendation to test fewer people, soon after Trump said he had asked his people to “slow the testing down, please,” because, he claimed, more tests revealed more coronavirus cases and made the US look bad.

The changes were reportedly pushed by the White House’s coronavirus task force — while Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and an opponent of the changes, was under anesthesia for surgery.

Experts called the changes misguided and dangerous. When paired with contact tracing, testing is crucial to stopping the spread of Covid-19. It allows officials to not only track the scope of an outbreak but get people and their close contacts to isolate if they’re confirmed to be infected, halting the spread of the virus. For the coronavirus, that necessitates testing even people without symptoms because research shows the infected can still transmit the virus without displaying any symptoms. Aggressive testing and tracing have helped other countries, such as Germany and South Korea, control their Covid-19 outbreaks.

Trump has also repeatedly undermined the agency’s other guidelines. After the agency recommended that the public use masks, Trump claimed it was a personal choice, refused to wear a mask himself, and said people wear masks to spite him. While the CDC released careful, rigorous guidelines on how places should reopen, Trump demanded that states “LIBERATE” themselves and open prematurely. At one point, Trump went after the CDC’s school reopening guidelines — leading the agency to update the guidelines to be more favorable to opening schools.

Previously, the Trump administration had already sidelined the CDC in the public spotlight.

Those efforts began early on in the pandemic. On February 25, Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, told reporters that Americans should prepare for community spread of the coronavirus, social distancing, and the possibility that “disruption to everyday life might be severe.”

In retrospect, the warning was correct. But soon after the briefing, Messonnier was pushed out of the spotlight — though she’s still on the job, her press appearances have been limited — reportedly because her negative outlook angered Trump.

It wasn’t just Messonnier. The CDC is supposed to play the leading role in America’s fight against pandemics, but it’s been largely invisible in press briefings led by Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, involving advisers and health officials, such as Fauci and Deborah Birx, who aren’t part of the agency. CDC Director Robert Redfield acknowledged as much: “You may see [the CDC] as invisible on the nightly news, but it’s sure not invisible in terms of operationalizing this response.”

As University of Michigan medical historian Howard Markel told me, the US has “benched one of the greatest fighting forces against infectious diseases ever created.”

The CDC’s response to the pandemic hasn’t been faultless. Under Redfield, the agency took weeks to fix botched Covid-19 tests it sent out to labs across the country. The slowdown in testing, also caused by the Food and Drug Administration’s initial resistance to approving more testing from private and other independent labs, led to what’s now considered a “lost month” in February as the US should have ramped up its testing capacity to prepare for the coronavirus.

But the Trump administration’s concerns about the agency don’t seem to be so much about its efficacy but that the facts on Covid-19 — including those the CDC reports on — make the president look bad.

Hiding the truth won’t stop the virus

At the core of Trump and his administration’s complaints about the CDC seems to be a concerted effort to make it appear as though America is quickly returning to normal before the November election. That effort was on display at August’s Republican convention, which was seemingly designed to downplay America’s Covid-19 epidemic.

Trump even admitted to this in an interview with journalist Bob Woodward: “I wanted to always play [the coronavirus] down,” Trump said on March 19. “I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”

This is, of course, a terrible way to approach a pandemic. Viruses don’t care about politics, and they’ll spread as long as people and their governments don’t take action to stop them.

We’ve seen that time and time again as Trump has meddled with the CDC. Although he and his staff muzzled Messonnier, it turns out she was right — Covid-19 has disrupted day-to-day life significantly. After Trump suggested states reopen faster than the CDC recommended, the US saw a resurgence of Covid-19 cases, from California to Arizona to Texas to Florida, as it turned out states had opened prematurely. After Trump pushed schools to reject the CDC guidelines and open quickly, there have been outbreaks in universities and K-12 settings.

Meanwhile, the US continues suffering a terrible epidemic. The US hasn’t seen the most Covid-19 deaths of all wealthy nations, but it’s in the bottom 20 percent for deaths since the pandemic began, and reports seven times the deaths as the median developed country. If America had the same Covid-19 death rate as, say, Canada, 100,000 more Americans would likely be alive today.

Overall, Covid-19 cases in the US are now declining after the country’s recent surge. But that’s in large part because people have ignored much of what Trump has said: The public, as well as many cities, counties, and states, have embraced social distancing, particularly indoors, and masking — likely driving new infections down.

At the same time, the US’s number of cases and deaths remains unacceptably high; over the past week, more than 700 Americans died each day, on average, from Covid-19. Some US outbreaks continue to pop up too, with states in the Midwest and South recently hit hard.

The CDC is merely reporting on and acting on that reality, as the agency is tasked with doing. To the extent the Trump administration succeeds in interfering with the CDC’s work, the US will likely continue to suffer more than it has to during the pandemic.

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