What happened: In June, the White House installed two political operatives at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to control what scientific information the CDC releases on the COVID-19 pandemic.
Why it matters: When political officials distort science on COVID-19, the public will inevitably be less informed about the best ways to stay safe during the pandemic. This will also degrade the public’s trust in the CDC’s ability to provide robust scientific information to the public. With the public less informed and less trusting of information released by the CDC, people are less likely to know about or follow the advice of some of world’s top infectious disease experts.
According to AP news, the White House has installed two political operatives at the headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta for the purpose of monitoring and controlling the scientific information released by the CDC on the pandemic. The two political operatives were directed to keep an eye on Robert Redfield, the director of the CDC, and on the CDC’s scientists. This action is highly unusual as compared to past administrations – while past administrations appointed CDC directors, they did not install other political appointees to the CDC.
The White House began pushing for the installation of political appointees at the CDC after a handful of leaks were “upsetting the apple cart,” as one administration official put it. In particular, the White House was angered about the public revelation that the White House had blocked the release of a CDC report on how to reopen communities safely in May. The news stories on this report led the White House to renew their efforts to exert control over the CDC.
The two individuals appointed to the CDC, Nina Witkofsky and Chester “Trey” Moeller, do not have a public health background. Witkofsky’s background includes working as the events director for George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign, working as a publicist and talent booker for Turner Broadcasting’s Cartoon Network, and working at the State Department to develop an international engagement program for US athletes and coaches. Moeller previously worked on George W. Bush’s 2004 presidential campaign.
When Witkofsky and Moeller showed up at the CDC’s headquarters in June, their roles were a mystery even to senior CDC staff. Witkofsky was initially installed as a senior advisor to Redfield but after a few weeks she became the acting chief of staff, an influential role where she acts as Redfield’s right hand. According to CDC officials, Witkofsky is now the person at the CDC’s headquarters who has the most daily interactions with Redfield. Moeller is Witkofsky’s deputy and has sat in on a number of on scientific meetings – he was tasked to “listen to the scientists.” Congressional investigators from the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis are currently examining to what extent Witkofsky and Moeller’s action may have affected the CDC’s work.
Witkofsky regularly communicated with Michael Caputo, Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs. Caputo carried out a number of actions to muzzle, bully, and undermine CDC scientists and staff, which included burying, editing, and delaying CDC studies; attempting to punish CDC communication staff that granted interviews with NPR; and defunding the CDC’s budget by $300 million for a politically-motivated “defeat despair” ad campaign. At the time that Witkofsky was regularly communicating with Caputo, Caputo and his team were trying to add a highly political review process to a well-respected report series, the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports.
The CDC is a science-based agency that, according to its mission statement, “conducts critical science and provides health information that protects our nation against expensive and dangerous health threats.” Placing two political operatives at the CDC for the express purpose of controlling its public messaging greatly undermines the mission of the CDC, since the public is less able to access the CDC’s high quality scientific information in the middle of a deadly pandemic. This action also sends a chilling message to CDC scientists and officials, that the White House is watching what you say even within the CDC. Installing political operatives at the CDC only further impedes the ability of the CDC to effectively respond to the pandemic and protect the health and safety of millions of people across the US.