NEW YORK -- Two appointees assigned to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Atlanta headquarters in June have no public health background. They have been tasked with keeping an eye on Dr. Robert Redfield, the agency director, as well as scientists, according to a half-dozen CDC and administration officials who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity to discuss internal government affairs.
The appointments were part of a push to get more "politicals" into the CDC to help control messaging after a handful of leaks were "upsetting the apple cart," said an administration official.
When the two appointees showed up in Atlanta, their roles were a mystery to senior CDC staff, the people said. They had not even been assigned offices.
Eventually one, Nina Witkofsky, became acting chief of staff, an influential role as Redfield's right hand. The other, her deputy Trey Moeller, began sitting in on scientific meetings, the sources said.
It's not clear to what extent the two appointees have affected the agency's work, according to interviews with multiple CDC officials. But congressional investigators are examining that very question after evidence has mounted of political interference in CDC scientific publications, guidance documents and web postings.
The White House declined to comment. A CDC spokesperson confirmed that Witkofsky and Moeller were working at the agency reporting to Redfield, but did not comment further.
Moeller said in an email to The AP, "I work for Dr. Redfield who is 100% committed to the science and the thousands of incredibly dedicated employees at the CDC."
During previous pandemics such as Ebola, the CDC was the public face of the U.S. response, offering scientifically driven advice. The agency played the same role at the beginning of the covid-19 pandemic, but stumbled in February when a test for the virus sent to the states proved flawed. Then, in late February, a top CDC infectious-disease expert, Dr. Nancy Messonnier, upset the administration by speaking frankly at a news conference about the dangers of the virus when the president was downplaying it.
In May, a series of leaked emails and scientific documents obtained by The AP detailed how the White House had buried CDC's detailed guidelines for communities reopening during a still-surging pandemic. The resulting news stories angered the administration, and sparked renewed efforts to exert control over the CDC, according to current and former officials.
On a Monday in June, the new faces arrived unexpectedly at Redfield's Atlanta offices, said a former CDC official who also spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal agency affairs.
One was Witkofsky, who was installed initially as a senior adviser to Redfield. In a few weeks, she would take over as the agency's acting chief of staff and become the person at CDC headquarters who has the most daily interactions with him, the CDC officials said.
Presidential administrations appoint CDC directors. And there's nothing new about a White House seeking a better handle on information released by the agency, said Glen Nowak, a University of Georgia professor who formerly ran CDC's media relations. But past administrations placed overtly political appointees in Washington; the Trump administration has placed people in CDC's Atlanta headquarters, Nowak said.
Before Witkofsky and Moeller, the Trump administration had appointed others at CDC in Atlanta who were viewed by staff with some suspicion. But none of the predecessors were there to report internal agency business up to Washington, according to the officials.
Witkofsky seemed a particularly strange fit for the nation's top public health agency. She studied finance and business administration in college and graduate school, and at one point worked as a publicist and talent booker for Turner Broadcasting's Cartoon Network. Her political work included being an events director during former President George W. Bush's 2000 campaign.
Though Witkofsky was largely unknown, she had met a few CDC workers months earlier. In March, on behalf of the administration, she had worked communications when Trump visited a CDC lab.
In her new role, Witkofsky communicated regularly with Michael Caputo, chief of communications for CDC's parent agency, the Department of Health and Human Services, an administration official said.
At the time, Caputo's office was attempting to gain control over the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, a CDC scientific weekly known for publishing authoritative and unvarnished information about disease-fighting efforts, according to multiple accounts.
Witkofsky's deputy, Moeller, is a longtime GOP supporter who worked on the Bush-Cheney presidential campaign in 2004. The most recent post on his Facebook page was a "Make America Great Again" Trump campaign banner.
They wanted him to sit in meetings and "listen to scientists," said one health official.
A Health and Human Services spokesperson said Witkifsky and Moeller both report to Redfield.
Witkofsky and Moeller are among officials the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis is seeking to interview as part of a probe it launched in mid-September into allegations that Caputo and others in the Trump administration blocked the CDC from publishing accurate scientific reports during the pandemic.