Trump appointees in the Department of Health and Human Services last year privately touted their efforts to block or alter scientists’ reports on the coronavirus to more closely align with then-President Donald Trump’s more optimistic messages about the outbreak, according to newly released documents from congressional investigators.
The documents provide further insight into how senior Trump officials approached last year’s explosion of coronavirus cases in the United States. Even as career government scientists worked to combat the virus, a cadre of Trump appointees was attempting to blunt the scientists’ messages, edit their findings, and equip the president with an alternate set of talking points.
Then-science adviser Paul Alexander wrote to then-HHS public affairs chief Michael Caputo on Sept. 9, 2020, touting two examples of where he said officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had bowed to his pressure and changed language in their reports, according to an email obtained by the House’s select subcommittee on the coronavirus outbreak.
Pointing to one change — in which CDC leaders allegedly changed the opening sentence of a report about the spread of the virus among younger people after Alexander pressured them — Alexander wrote to Caputo, calling it a “small victory but a victory nonetheless and yippee!!!”
In the same email, Alexander touted another example of a change to a weekly report from the CDC that he said the agency made in response to his demands. The Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports (MMWR), which offer public updates on scientists’ findings, had been considered sacrosanct for decades and untouchable by political appointees in the past.
Two days later, Alexander appealed to then-White House adviser Scott Atlas to help him dispute an upcoming CDC report on coronavirus-related deaths among young Americans.
“Can you help me craft an op-ed,” Alexander wrote to Atlas on Sept. 11, alleging the CDC report was “timed for the election” and an attempt to keep schools closed even as Trump pushed to reopen them. “Let us advise the President and get permission to preempt this please for it will run for the weekend so we need to blunt the edge as it is misleading.”
Alexander and other officials also strategized on how to help Trump argue to reopen the economy in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak, despite scientists’ warnings about the potential risks.
“I know the President wants us to enumerate the economic cost of not reopening. We need solid estimates to be able to say something like 50,000 more cancer deaths! 40,000 more heart attacks! 25,000 more suicides!” Caputo wrote to Alexander on May 16, 2020, in an email obtained by the subcommittee.
“You need to take ownership of these numbers. This is singularly important to what you and I want to achieve,” Caputo added in a follow-up email, urging Alexander to compile additional data on the consequences of virus-related shutdowns.
Many of the Trump officials clashing with government scientists had little or no previous experience in combating infectious disease. Caputo, a GOP political communications consultant, and longtime Trump ally had not previously worked in public health before Trump installed him to oversee the health department’s communications in April 2020.
Alexander, who was not a physician but recruited as Caputo’s handpicked science adviser, had previously been an unpaid, part-time health professor at Canada’s McMaster University. Atlas was a neuroradiologist and senior fellow at Stanford University’s conservative Hoover Institution who caught the White House’s attention after defending the Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic on Fox News.
“Our investigation has shown that Trump Administration officials engaged in a persistent pattern of political interference in the nation’s public health response to the coronavirus pandemic, overruling and bullying scientists and making harmful decisions that allowed the virus to spread more rapidly,” Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), the subcommittee chairman, wrote to Alexander and Atlas.
The subcommittee is seeking additional documents from Alexander, Atlas, and others, noting that some of the Trump officials’ correspondence was sent from personal email accounts. Clyburn also is requesting that Alexander and Atlas sit for interviews with his subcommittee’s investigation by May 3.
Politico first reported on Sept. 11 that Trump appointees had demanded the right to edit the CDC’s reports and won some changes to scientists’ language, prompting Democrats to open an investigation. Caputo took medical leave on Sept. 16, 2020, and HHS announced that Alexander would be “permanently” leaving the agency on the same day.
Alexander had previously spent months battling with scientists over reports that he deemed misleading or insubordinate to Trump, with a particular focus on those detailing the risks of the coronavirus to children. The effort accelerated after the White House last summer installed several new officials as members of the agency’s leadership team, including Nina Witkofsky as acting CDC chief of staff. Witkofsky had previously been a contractor helping plan events for Seema Verma, the Trump administration’s Medicare and Medicaid chief.
“The last 2 MMWR reports have been more positive than usual and I find [that] encouraging,” Alexander wrote to Witkofsky on Aug. 30, according to an email obtained by the subcommittee. “Maybe you are having a huge impact and this is tremendous. Well done!”
Ten days later, Alexander wrote to Caputo, extolling several changes to CDC reports that he claimed were made because of his influence.
For instance, Alexander said he had won changes to the “key opening sentence” of an August report about a coronavirus outbreak at a Georgia summer camp. The draft report’s opening line argued that understanding youth transmission of the coronavirus was “critical for developing guidance for schools and institutes of higher education,” according to Alexander’s email. But that language was removed from the final report and a caveat was inserted to specify that there was “limited data” about spread of the virus among people under the age of 21. The CDC said that the change had been made because of “thoughtful comments” from Alexander and the agency’s leaders.
The Trump appointee continued to demand more revisions, calling for changes to a September MMWR report that concluded that children who contracted the coronavirus in child-care facilities later transmitted the virus to their family members.
“In my view, the parents got it more likely when they picked up the kids and came into contact with the school personnel or teachers as happens with my wife and I when we pick our kids form [sic] school,” Alexander wrote to Caputo on Sept. 13.
Then-CDC Director Robert Redfield and other Trump appointees repeatedly claimed last year that the agency’s reports had been protected from political interference.
“At no time has the scientific integrity of the MMWR been compromised. And I can say that under my watch, it will not be compromised,” Redfield testified to the Senate on Sept. 16. However, Redfield told CNN last month that then-HHS Secretary Alex Azar and other Trump officials tried to change several MMWRs that they did not like, a charge disputed by Azar.
In emails obtained by the subcommittee, Alexander and others also repeatedly took aim at Anthony S. Fauci, the government’s top infectious-disease expert, critiquing his statements about the coronavirus and complaining that Fauci’s calls to close schools last year were disproportionate to his more measured response to prior flu outbreaks that had led to more deaths among children.
“Dr. Fauci has no data, no science to back up what he is saying on school reopen, none … he is scaring the nation wrongfully,” Alexander wrote to 11 senior HHS officials on Aug. 11, arguing that Fauci was unnecessarily alarming parents.
Trump officials also strategized over how to build the president’s case that virus-related shutdowns were creating a more significant health burden than swiftly reopening the economy. Trump repeatedly cheered Republican governors who rolled back coronavirus restrictions last year against scientific advice, even as virus cases in those states later spiked and some governors subsequently paused the reopenings.
“We have to now ‘unscare’ people while as we reopen, we will see blips and spikes in cases and deaths,” Alexander wrote on May 15 to the HHS secretary’s speechwriter, insisting that failing to reopen the economy would “have far greater consequences,” as deaths related to alcohol, drugs, depression and other causes would mount. “We must school them that we will respond to the spikes and hotspots as needed.”
The long-term consequences of last year’s shutdowns are still not clear. CDC officials this week reported that the total number of suicides dropped by 5.6 percent last year, the largest decline in four decades, surprising some officials who had warned of a spike. However, deaths from heart disease rose by 4.8 percent. Meanwhile, total cancer deaths remained flat in 2020, although public health experts warned that many screenings that would’ve caught early cancers were skipped or delayed last year.
Alexander, Atlas, and others also repeatedly drafted op-eds intended to provide an alternative message to government scientists’ warnings, including five possible op-eds detailed in emails obtained by the subcommittee.
One email from Alexander to Atlas on Sept. 3 proposed an “op-ed on possible damage to children immune systems with lockdowns and masks,” arguing to Atlas that “I do think locking down our kids (and healthy adults) and masking them can dampen their functional immune systems.”
Scientists have said there is no evidence that wearing masks harms the development of children’s immune systems.