Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) has announced a House investigation into reports that Trump appointees have altered CDC reports to benefit the president. (Graeme Jennings/Pool via AP)
Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) has announced a House investigation into reports that Trump appointees have altered CDC reports to benefit the president. (Graeme Jennings/Pool via AP)

The Trump Administration has known how deadly the coronavirus pandemic is, yet political appointees continue altering scientific reports by the CDC to mislead the public.

Top Democratic lawmakers announced Monday they are launching an investigation into allegations that Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) political appointees doctored official Centers for Disease Control (CDC) COVID-19 reports to protect the president. 

“During the pandemic, experts have relied on these reports to determine how the virus spreads and who is at greatest risk,” Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), chair of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, and his Democratic colleagues wrote in a letter shared first with POLITICO. “Yet HHS officials apparently viewed these scientific reports as opportunities for political manipulation,” the letter continued. Clyburn, the Majority Whip, is leading the investigation panel. 

Over the last five months, communications aides from HHS have been granted increasing access to review and alter the CDC’s weekly scientific reports on the pandemic. Several emails reviewed by Politico revealed complaints that the data in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports undermined Donald Trump’s more optimistic messaging on the progress of the coronavirus crisis, and changes were made to reflect a rosier picture than was warranted. 

The president has consistently tried to minimize the severity and scope of the pandemic, admitting on recordings to journalist Bob Woodward, “I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down because I don’t want to create a panic.”

The reports that have been altered are created by scientists and are the CDC’s main means of informing doctors, researchers, and the general public about public health issues. The reports are essential to fighting the pandemic and have historically seen very little political interference.

“It’s the go-to place for the public health community to get information that’s scientifically vetted,” said Jennifer Kates, head of the Kaiser Family Foundation’s global health work.

But since April, former Trump campaign staffer Michael Caputo has been in place as the spokesperson for HHS. And his hand is at work in altering the reports to deny science and align with Trump’s public messaging. Caputo is a political strategist and lobbyist with no medical or scientific background and has ties to the former Soviet Union. He lived in Russia for six years and did PR to clean up Vladimir Putin’s image. “At the time, Putin wasn’t such a bad guy,” Caputo told The Buffalo News

Besides attempts to create reports more in line with Trump’s agenda on the coronavirus, Caputo’s HHS aides have also sought to update CDC reports that were already released and to delay new reports. For example, the release of a report on hydroxychloroquine—the malaria drug that Trump touted as a miracle cure despite little evidence—was stalled for a month. The report ultimately found that “the potential benefits of these drugs do not outweigh their risks.”  

HHS aides have also attempted to stop the publication of reports altogether. During Trump’s push to reopen schools for in-person instruction, two COVID-related reports came under scrutiny and received intense pushback from an HHS official who felt they could hurt the president’s agenda. “[The] CDC to me appears to be writing hit pieces on the administration,” wrote Paul Alexander, Caputo’s scientific adviser. 

But Alexander’s concerns did not stop there—nor did his meddling in the scientific facts being reported by the CDC. “The reports must be read by someone outside of CDC like myself, and we cannot allow the reporting to go on as it has been,” he added. “Nothing to go out unless I read and agree with the findings how they [sic] CDC, wrote it and I tweak it to ensure it is fair and balanced and ‘complete.’”

Clyburn and House Democrats are requesting documents as well as interviews with officials from the CDC and HHS. The investigation seeks “to determine the scope of political interference with CDC’s scientific reports and other efforts to combat the pandemic, the impact of this interference on CDC’s mission, whether this interference is continuing, and the steps that Congress may need to take to stop it before more Americans die needlessly,” Democrats wrote in a letter to HHS and the CDC.