Former Trump administration officials say that whenever the science clashed with political messaging, the messaging won.
Two former Trump administration officials from the CDC say the White House dismissed scientific facts, meddled in public messaging, and stifled the agency’s voice during the coronavirus pandemic.
In multiple interviews with The New York Times, Kyle McGowan, a former chief of staff within the CDC, and his deputy, Amanda Campbell, explained how political and economic considerations from the White House often took precedence over science. And they are worried those tactics from the Trump administration will have a lasting impact on the CDC.
McGowan explained that over time, White House officials and people part of Trump’s inner circle strengthened their grasp over the CDC. For example, the CDC’s weekly disease outbreak reports were always considered free from any political interference. But just last week, the editor in chief of the reports reported that she was ordered to destroy an email that contained information about Trump appointees working to alter change the publication.
In other instances, the White House requested to review the content of the CDC’s COVID-19 guidance documents. Agency employees felt as though the guidelines were available to “an endless loop of political appointees across Washington,” according to The New York Times.
McGowan cited another instance in which the White House was focused on the economic side effects of public health guidelines. Trump appointee Russel Vought, the White House budget director, argued that specific recommendations about restaurants spacing out patrons by six feet or more would be too cumbersome for businesses to implement.
“It is not the CDC’s role to determine the economic viability of a guidance document,” McGowan told The New York Times.
Ultimately the initial guidelines did not reference the six-foot measurement.
Vought’s influence in CDC policy would have been unheard of in previous administrations, especially because his role as the White House as budget director is so far afield the work of the influential health agency.
Ivanka Trump and Kellyanne Conway were also among the Trump appointees that worked to influence the agency, according to the former staffers. Ivanka Trump pushed guidelines to encourage schools to reopen, even though doing so exposed teachers, school personnel, families and other members of the community.
Campbell witnessed similar efforts to stifle the CDC’s recommendations. For example, Trump officials requested the CDC make changes to its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports which are widely considered completely apolitical. Over the summer officials repeatedly asked CDC employees to delay, revise, or even scrap whole drafts of the report that they thought could oppose Trump’s own positions.
Although it’s typical to see interagency collaboration to review documents, former CDC director Dr. Tom Frieden said, “[It’s] not legitimate to overrule science.”
According to McGowan, when political messaging butted heads with science, the messaging always won.
“What was so different [from previous administrations] was the political involvement, not only from HHS but then the White House ultimately in so many ways hampered what our scientists were able to do,” Campbell said.
McGowan and Campbell both identified as Republicans and were two of the youngest appointed staff at the CDC. According to The New York Times, McGowan and Campbell were often two of the highest-ranking officials in Atlanta because Dr. Robert Redfield, the current director of the CDC was frequently in Washington.
Since leaving the CDC in August, McGowan and Campbell have started their own health policy consulting firm called Ascendant Strategic Partners which specializes in public health and healthcare.