What happened: In 2020, President Trump and White House officials interfered with the work of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) by blocking scientists and officials from speaking to the media about the dangers of COVID-19.
Why it matters: In an effort to downplay the severity of the fast-spreading virus, the Trump administration blocked the efforts of the CDC to provide needed scientific information about COVID-19 to the public. These actions prevented the public from accessing the best available scientific information from CDC experts during the early pandemic, likely exacerbating the public health crisis. Especially during a national emergency, the public needs and deserves to know the latest science-based information on how to best protect their health and safety.
As the spread of COVID-19 across the United States was announced in March 2020, the White House interfered with the efforts of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to carry out media briefings that would have provided necessary science-based information to the public on COVID-19. In April 2021, the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis began investigating the federal response to the pandemic. By July 2021, they discovered over 80 incidents of political interference in the coronavirus response by the Trump administration including how President Trump and White House officials prevented CDC scientists and officials from attending media briefings and speaking directly to the media about COVID-19. According to former CDC Principal Deputy Director Anne Schuchat, the White House halted CDC telebriefings in spring 2020, thereby preventing CDC scientists and officials from releasing vital information about the emerging virus to the public and downplaying the severity of the novel coronavirus.
The House Committee’s findings were previously documented in an analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists in May 2020. The UCS analysis showed that the Trump administration’s approach to COVID-19 strongly diverged from the ways that the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations responded to some of the worst public health crises in their tenures, the SARS epidemic in 2003 and the H1N1 (swine flu) epidemic in 2009, respectively. Data showed that CDC public communication, as measured by media briefings during the first 13 weeks of the crisis, was lowest during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The House Committee investigation found further evidence of White House interference. Former National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases (NCIRD) Director, Nancy Messonnier, reported in February 2020 that community spread of the virus and the impact on everyday life would be severe. However, the White House prevented Messonnier from engaging in further public communications about the virus moving forward. Christine Casey, a leader of the highly respected CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports (MMWR) team, stated she received orders to delete an email believed to reflect “political interference.” She was also told that she was to stop publishing MMWR articles as assumptions were made by Paul Alexander, former Health and Human Services senior adviser, that her and her team’s scientific articles were published to damage the reputation of President Trump.
Additional incidences of political interference included reports of sidelining CDC recommendations for COVID-19 testing by claiming that only symptomatic individuals required testing and halting the release of a CDC report meant to provide local officials with a collection of the best scientifically supported practices for reopening society. In spring 2020, President Trump called for the reopening of the economy, in disagreement to the CDC report, and challenged the validity of scientific information and statistical data that concluded the economy was not ready to reopen fully. The Trump administration’s distrust of COVID-19 science also included questioning the scientifically and statistically backed information showing a rise in coronavirus-related deaths. White House officials even considered auditing hospitals with suspicions that death tolls were being improperly tallied.
By directly silencing CDC experts, the Trump administration hindered the ability for scientists and health officials to inform the public about COVID-19 and help slow the spread of a dangerous disease. Political officials interfered with what should have been a science-based response to a health crisis and downplayed vital health information regarding the pandemic. These actions helped trigger the enormous spread of online disinformation and the novel coronavirus in communities across the US, thereby endangering the health and safety of millions.