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Trump officials boasted sway over CDC reports

by DAN DIAMOND THE WASHINGTON POST | April 10, 2021 at 3:59 a.m.

Trump appointees in the Health and Human Services Department 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 were 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-Health and Human Services public affairs chief Michael Caputo on Sept. 9, 2020, touting two examples of where he said 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 -- where CDC leaders allegedly changed the opening sentence of a report about spread of the virus among younger people after Alexander pressured them -- he 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 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that he said the agency made in response to his demands. The weekly Morbidity and Mortality Reports, which offer public updates on scientists' findings, had been considered sacrosanct for decades and untouchable by political appointees in the past.

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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.

Atlas, Alexander and Caputo did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Many of the Trump officials clashing with government scientists had little or no 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 radiologist 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 coronavirus 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 Clyburn, D-S.C., the subcommittee chair, 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, 2020, 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 Sept. 16, and Health and Human Services fired Alexander 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 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. She had previously been a contractor helping plan events for the Trump administration's Medicare and Medicaid chief.

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