The emails and transcripts detail how in the early days of 2020 Trump and his allies in the White House blocked media briefings and interviews with CDC officials, attempted to alter public safety guidance normally cleared by the agency and instructed agency officials to destroy evidence that might be construed as political interference.
The documents further underscore how Trump appointees tried to undermine the work of scientists and career staff at the CDC to control the administration’s messaging on the spread of the virus and the dangers of transmission and infection.
The CDC did not respond to a request for comment.
Several top former Trump officials, including Deborah Birx, the former White House Covid-19 task force coordinator, have answered committee questions. Former National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases Director Nancy Messonnier and former CDC Principal Deputy Director Anne Schuchat also appeared for questioning. Both stepped down from their posts at the CDC in the spring.
The documents released by the committee — and the corresponding interviews with witnesses — lay out a timeline for how the Trump White House began to downplay the dangers posed by Covid-19. Several former high-level Trump officials who worked on the administration’s response have said publicly after the fact that they did not want to panic the American public.
But scientists at the CDC, well aware that the virus was transmitting at a high rate and could infect easily, stepped in early to speak to the American people directly in an attempt to warn the public about what was coming.
In a press conference in February 2020, Messonnier told reporters that she expected community spread within the U.S. and that the disruptions to everyday life could be “severe.” It was one of the first blunt assessments from a high-level CDC official about what was in store for the U.S.
That warning frustrated Trump, according to documents released by the congressional committee Friday.
“I believed that my remarks were accurate based on the information we had at the time,” Messonnier told the committee in her interview. “I heard that the President was unhappy with the telebriefing.”
Following Messonnier’s comments in the Feb. 25 briefing, the leadership at the Department of Health and Human Services called yet another press conference.
“The impression that I was given was that the reaction to the morning briefing was quite volatile and having another briefing — you know, later I think I got the impression that having another briefing might get — you know, there was nothing new to report, but get additional voices out there talking about that situation,” Schuchat told the committee in her testimony.
From that point, the White House took the lead on the federal response and controlling all communications and messaging about the virus, denying CDC requests to hold its own briefings.
“We would submit a request to the others to do a briefing and it was declined, and then — or we didn’t get approval to be able to do one,” Schuchat said, referring to specific requests she received from the media for an interview. Schuchat said…