Corrupted: Meddling with The Messaging

Since he entered office, President Donald Trump has repeatedly put politics ahead of science. And, as we’ve seen, his sustained assault on government science has run headlong into a global health crisis.

Disaster was in the making long before the coronavirus hit. The Trump administration shuttered scientific advisory committees, sidelined career government scientists, restricted public access to scientific data, and put people who lacked the necessary technical background or had glaring conflicts of interest in charge of science-based agencies. And let’s not forget last year’s Sharpiegate incident.

So it should come as no surprise that politics have infected the federal pandemic response. One of the first major flashpoints concerned the alleged retaliation against Rick Bright, former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, for pushing back on the administration’s attempt to promote unproven COVID-19 treatments. Around the same time was Trump’s public tantrum over an inspector general report warning about medical supply shortages.

Bright is poised to win an award for truth-telling. Meanwhile, amid the worsening crisis, Trump and his allies inside and outside of the White House continue to politicize science and ignore or distort the work of government scientists—par for the course for a president notorious for paying closer attention to Fox News shows than to government experts.

Politicizing science is particularly dangerous in a pandemic, when the public depends on clear, apolitical information, and guidance from their government. Messaging is crucial for convincing individuals to act in a way that helps keep themselves, their families, and their communities safe. Corrupting the message by ignoring science and putting political considerations first is just plain reckless and inexcusable.

Playing Politics with Public Health Information

The spring and summer saw many revelations about political appointees in the administration attempting to direct and influence the work of government disease experts.

The epicenter of this effort is the Department of Health and Human Services. Alarm bells went off in April when Trump appointed Michael Caputo as the department’s assistant secretary for public affairs. Caputo, a former Trump campaign official with no public health experience, quickly got to work grabbing control of the public messages put out by department scientists. It wasn’t long before Caputo’s office demanded permission “to review and seek changes” to the weekly coronavirus tracking reports issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Politico reported.

Caputo and his cronies got serious about tampering with the reports in mid-May after senior CDC official Anne Schuchat published a report that top officials felt reflected poorly on the government’s pandemic response.

CNN reported that since then, one political appointee, Caputo science adviser Paul Alexander, “has regularly added his input” to the weekly reports.

Caputo, Alexander, and other Trump loyalists’ goal: making sure the CDC’s reports and recommendations lined up with the president’s cheery messages about the pandemic.

Even if Alexander and Caputo were unable to significantly alter the CDC’s weekly reports, at the very least they delayed the public release of crucial information. For example, for about a month, they held up information on how anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine’s risks outweigh its benefits, per Politico. And they delayed for several weeks a report on the infection rate in 10 states until the CDC’s director forced their hand by mentioning it at a press conference, the New York Times reported.

Earlier this month, Caputo announced that he would take a 60-day leave of absence from his job after baselessly accusing government scientists of “sedition” and making other controversial comments in a Facebook video. Alexander also departed following reports that he attempted to block government scientists from publicizing their findings and recommendations. He allegedly pressured Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, to downplay the virus’s risk to children. (Fauci says he told Alexander to “go take a hike.”)

Political appointees have also tried to stop government scientists from talking to the press by cancelling interviews with the media ahead of the release of major reports, preventing scientists from explaining their findings.

On top of that, officials at Health and Human Services appear to have circumvented the CDC’s usual scientific review process on several occasions to deliver information to the public via the CDC’s own website.

Take these two alarming incidents from the summer.

In July, a document urging the reopening of schools was posted on the CDC’s website, and was “sharply out of step with the CDC’s usual neutral and scientific tone,” according to officials. A new report from the New York Times shows that the document’s release came after the White House pressured the agency to produce and promote data that would support Trump’s push to reopen schools.

In August, the CDC posted guidelines saying it was unnecessary to test asymptomatic people who’d been exposed to the virus. But it turns out that the recommendations were drafted by senior Health and Human Services officials and the White House’s pandemic task force and then “dropped” into the CDC’s website without undergoing the agency’s standard scientific review.

In an August email, Alexander accused the CDC of “writing hit pieces on the administration,” referring to two reports discussing the risks COVID-19 poses to children, according to Politico. Two months before that, Alexander lashed out at the CDC over a report warning about the virus’s risks to pregnant women.

Recently, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar took a drastic step to exert an extraordinary level of control over health policymaking: He issued a rule prohibiting the nation’s health agencies from signing any new rules on the country’s foods and medical products—including vaccines—without his sign-off. One former top official described the move as a “power grab.”

“Remain Calm! ALL IS WELL!!!”

While his appointees have been busily trying to hijack the messaging from the experts, the president has steadfastly downplayed the severity of the pandemic—at least in public.

Just recently, he claimed that the virus “affects virtually nobody,” prompting a rebuke from Fauci. Trump has insisted that the administration has done a “phenomenal job” combatting the virus. More than 200,000 Americans have died and an additional 7.1 million have been infected.

To keep the good vibes flowing, Health and Human Services is looking to pay a contractor $250 million to help “defeat despair and inspire hope” during the pandemic.

Try as the political appointees might to keep the unvarnished, bad news about the pandemic from the public, bits of it keep spilling out. A White House Coronavirus Task Force document obtained by the Center for Public Integrity this summer contained information about states that were in the COVID-19 “red zone” and would need to implement stricter protective measures. The document was “shared within the federal government but does not appear to be posted publicly,” the Center reported.

Trump Whisperers

While Caputo and Alexander were making life difficult for the staff scientists at the CDC, a slate of quacks, conspiracy theorists, and “yes-men” caught the president’s attention.

A pillow company executive and major Trump donor, Mike Lindell, promoted the dangerous plant extract oleandrin as a COVID-19 cure. Days after a Florida preacher wrote a letter to the president touting an industrial bleach as a cure, the president made his infamous remarks about injecting disinfectant. Trump was also reportedly impressed by a Houston doctor who praised the promise of hydroxychloroquine, as well as a few outright loopy scientific theories.

And, among the White House staff, there’s Scott Atlas, a neuroradiologist who joined up in August as Trump’s pandemic adviser despite lacking a background in infectious diseases or epidemiology. He made it onto Trump’s radar with a spree of appearances on Fox News and is reportedly staying in his boss’s good graces by advocating policies that he says will bring about a speedy economic recovery, even if that means defying the sound science promoted by the likes of Fauci.

Atlas is pushing to simply let the virus run rampant in order to achieve herd immunity, an approach that other government scientists notably haven’t endorsed—and which experts say could lead to upwards of hundreds of thousands more deaths. Atlas also agrees with his boss’s stance on (not) wearing masks.

Atlas’s influence on the president has distressed White House coronavirus task force coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx so much that she’s considering leaving her post, CNN reported. Dr. Robert Redfield, the director of the CDC, reportedly complained on a recent phone call that “everything [Atlas] says is false.”

Looking Ahead

It’s not entirely clear what we can do beyond demanding that our leaders put aside partisan trivialities and let science dictate policy on the coronavirus. Messaging is crucial, so the government must speak with one, informed voice

As our colleague Nick Schwellenbach wrote at the beginning of the pandemic, Americans need “consistent and accurate federal communication. … This is not the time for political filters or spin, but for facts.” If Americans are going to trust the information released by our government and follow its recommendations, the entire executive branch needs to be communicating a clear, unified, fact-based, and unbiased message.