|Above, an emergency operations center at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, working in response to COVID-19, as WatchDog reports the president and his appointees have helped censor information from public health scientists about the threat of the pandemic. Photo: CDC/James Gathany. Click to enlarge.|
WatchDog Opinion: Trump Flack Tries To Spin Key CDC Weekly Report
By Joseph A. Davis
The effort by Trump political appointees — and President Trump himself — to spin science for political gain is one that cuts across many issues involving science and public health, especially on the environment beat.
The corruption, distortion, suppression and censorship of science have been consistent problems at Trump environmental agencies. But equally, in the case of the COVID-19 outbreak, Trump has sidelined scientists and doctors with expertise and experience in pandemics and public health, putting American lives at risk.
Now it’s clear, Trump and his appointees have helped censor information from public health scientists as he sought to deceive Americans about the threat his pandemic policies present to their lives and health.
|An HHS appointee reportedly censored the CDC's respected Morbity and Mortality Weekly Report.|
As the release of Bob Woodward’s book “Rage” reveals, Trump had been lying to Americans all along about how dangerous the COVID-19 virus is.
He knew much earlier than he had previously admitted that the coronavirus was serious, much more lethal than the flu and spread via fine droplets in the air. But Trump says, in his own recorded words, that he tried to “play it down.”
If the president had sounded the alarm and mobilized the nation just one week earlier, he could have saved an estimated 36,000 lives, according to a Columbia University study.
Trump has also admitted that he slowed and sabotaged the COVID-19 testing program to make the number of cases look smaller. The slowness of the testing program brought complaints from worried patients, medical staff and states during the early months. Those complaints were sometimes deflected with lies (“Anybody who wants a test gets a test.”). Finally, at his June 20 Tulsa rally, he said he had directed his staff to slow the testing down. Democrats complained Trump was sitting on $14 billion in testing funds.
Official seeks to censor key weekly government report
The latest revelation of politics trumping science came Sept. 11 in a scoop by Dan Diamond in POLITICO. With emails, Diamond showed that politically appointed press flacks without science expertise insisted on reviewing scientific journals to ensure they supported Trump’s political messaging.
The accusations named Michael Caputo, a top politically appointed press aide at the Department of Health and Human Services, or HHS. Caputo reportedly censored the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, a journal put out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The MMWR is a respected and essential instrument of public health surveillance for the United States and the larger world, published free and online weekly by the CDC. It publishes scientific research, edited by scientists, for a scientific audience. MMWR has focused in recent months on the COVID-19 pandemic, but its purview includes all kinds of disease.
Caputo was installed in mid-April as assistant secretary for public affairs at HHS, a position that does not require Senate confirmation. The White House put him there at a time when it was apparently unhappy with Alex Azar, HHS secretary, for not doing enough to stifle reports that undercut the Trump line on the pandemic.
Considered a Trump loyalist, Caputo has no medical or scientific background. He had formerly worked on Trump’s 2016 campaign and in February 2020, shortly after the Senate voted not to impeach Trump, he published a book and documentary, “The Ukraine Hoax,” defending the president.
Caputo, who in 1994 moved to Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union to work for energy giant Gazprom and on building the image of Vladimir Putin, is also an associate of former Trump confidant, conservative political consultant and convicted felon Roger Stone.
Complaints MMWR would ‘undermine’ Trump
Like many other federal agencies, HHS adopted a Scientific Integrity Policy in 2012 under former President Obama. But HHS, under Trump, seems to ignore and flout that policy, especially with subordinate agencies like CDC and the Food and Drug Administration.
MMWR, the publication Caputo has been trying to censor, has long been editorially independent, one of a small number of federal science publications that have also been independent of politics.
Diamond’s bombshell story was backed by emails.
“In some cases,” Diamond wrote, “emails from communications aides to CDC Director Robert Redfield and other senior officials openly complained that the agency’s reports would undermine President Donald Trump's optimistic messages about the outbreak, according to emails reviewed by POLITICO and three people familiar with the situation.”
An unpaid assistant professor whom Caputo
hired as an advisor demanded that MMWR
cease publication until he could personally
edit and approve every issue.
Also playing a part in the scandal was Paul Alexander, an unpaid assistant professor at McMaster University whom Caputo hired as an advisor. It was Alexander who demanded that MMWR cease publication until he could personally edit and approve every issue.
Alexander was shown in another POLITICO article, by Sarah Owermohle, to be instructing press officers at the National Institutes of Health on what Dr. Anthony Fauci should say during news media interviews.
Fauci, who heads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is universally respected as a top national expert on pandemics. Fauci has declined to be muzzled.
The Diamond scoop about Caputo was confirmed and expanded by subsequent accounts in publications like the New York Times and Washington Post.
Some days later, journalistic sleuthing yielded many more emails and records documenting how Caputo and Alexander had bullied scientists and career officials to keep their scientific statements in line with Trump’s political messaging. New stories by the New York Times (may require subscription) and CNN showed in new detail how political appointees kept the lid on public health experts.
Woodward revelations on Trump coronavirus messaging
The POLITICO story came right on the heels of Washington Post journalist Woodward’s book, which hit headlines as early as Sept. 9.
Using quotes often recorded and published with the book, Woodward told in detail how Trump had been warned of the pandemic’s dangers much earlier than previously revealed — and documented Trump’s own admission that he had registered and understood the dangers.
The quotes from the president made clear
that regarding COVID-19, Trump understood
the dangers to be far worse than he let on to the public.
The quotes made clear that regarding COVID-19, Trump understood the dangers to be far worse than he let on to the public.
For example, Trump told Woodward as early as Feb. 7 that the coronavirus was “more deadly than even your strenuous flu.” But publicly, Trump was saying COVID-19 was not as bad as the seasonal flu. That deception was a theme in Trump’s messaging for weeks.
Woodward also reveals that Trump knew quite well that the virus was commonly spread by microscopic floating droplets in the air — which is what face masks are meant to prevent. Yet Trump continued to appear in public without a mask and to hold rallies and public events with no mask requirement.
Woodward’s interviews also showed that Trump knew children were susceptible to the virus, acknowledging that to Woodward back in March (may require subscription). Yet, in later months, he was still telling the public that children were “almost immune” to the virus as he pushed jurisdictions across the country to reopen their schools.
Even before the Woodward book, journalists and media outlets were fact-checking that assertion and telling audiences it wasn’t true. In August, Facebook and Twitter removed video of Trump making the statement because it was not true. When presented with evidence of the truth, he doubled down on the falsehood, which he had already admitted to Woodward was false.
Ongoing pattern of concealment, deception
The latest revelations of Trump deception and concealment only confirmed a pattern that had been going on for the course of the pandemic.
Previous editions of the WatchDog have told some of the story. From the very beginning, Trump tried to minimize and sabotage diagnostic testing for the coronavirus, under the belief that fewer proven cases would make him look good.
Later, Trump tried to cut the CDC off from COVID-19 hospitalization data of a type that it had traditionally collected. The data collection job was given to Trump cronies and the data quickly disappeared.
A key issue was whether doctors and public health
experts could be heard in the public forum —
or whether politicians like Trump and Pence
would speak instead of the scientists.
All along, a key issue was whether doctors and public health experts could be heard in the public forum — or whether politicians like Trump and Vice President Pence would speak instead of the scientists.
The daily coronavirus task force briefings were a key arena. They gave Trump a chance to upstage and replace the scientists in prime time.
Surprisingly, the cable networks went along with this gambit. They for a long time ran the briefings in full, unchallenged and unchecked.
Caputo goes full conspiracy
But it gets weirder.
On Sept. 13, Caputo held a private Facebook Live event that went off the rails. It has since been taken down, but it was reported by Sharon LaFraniere in the New York Times (may require subscription).
In that session, Caputo claimed that career government scientists were committing “sedition” and that left-wing hit squads were getting ready for armed insurrection after the election. He accused CDC of harboring a “resistance unit” to oppose Trump. CNN confirmed the story.
Democrats reacted. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) called for HHS Sec. Azar to resign. Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), chair of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis and House majority whip, announced that his panel would investigate the Caputo matter.
Then on Sept. 15, Caputo called an emergency staff meeting to apologize for “drawing negative attention to the Trump administration's health care strategy.” He signalled that he might soon be leaving his job for health reasons.
What might be the last word came Sept. 16 when HHS announced that Caputo would indeed take medical leave. The length of leave was to be 60 days; at that time there were 48 days until the election.
Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, as well as compiling SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column and WatchDog Alert.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 5, No. 34. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.