Rep. Jim Clyburn, who chairs the House Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, on Thursday raised concern the episode may be among “deliberate efforts by the Trump Administration to conceal and destroy evidence” of political meddling in the pandemic response. In a letter to Redfield and HHS Secretary Alex Azar, he said that instructing staff to delete documents is unethical and possibly a violation of federal record-keeping requirements, according to a copy shared with POLITICO.
“Federal employees have affirmative obligations to preserve documents, and destruction of federal records is potentially illegal,” Clyburn warned in the letter. “Federal law also provides for up to three years of imprisonment for willful destruction of federal records.”
Redfield in a Thursday afternoon statement didn’t deny telling staff to delete the email, though he said he instructed them to “ignore Dr. Alexander’s comments.”
“As I testified before Congress, I am fully committed to maintaining the independence of the MMWR, and I stand by that statement,” Redfield said.
POLITICO first reported on Sept. 11 that Alexander had demanded — and received — the right to review the CDC’s reports, with the approval of top HHS officials. The agency’s MMWR reports, authored by career scientists, are typically free of political interference, and revelations that Trump officials had sought to alter their findings alarmed public health experts who depend on them. Democrats later announced a probe into the Trump administration’s interactions with the federal science agencies.
An HHS spokesperson, while ignoring questions about whether Redfield had asked staff to delete the email, said the House subcommittee had wrongly characterized Kent’s remarks — a complaint echoed by the panel’s top Republican.
“We urge the Subcommittee to release the transcript in full which will show that during her testimony Dr. Kent repeatedly said there was no political interference in the MMWR process,” the HHS spokesperson said.
Kent did not respond to a request for comment.
She also told investigators that the CDC, in an earlier incident, delayed the publication of a July report on coronavirus spread at a Georgia summer camp following a “requested delay by Dr. Redfield and HHS.” The report was held for two days and instead released about 15 minutes after Redfield concluded testimony to Clyburn’s panel.
Clyburn said the subcommittee is still waiting for documents that it requested on Sept. 14. In his letter, he also threatened to subpoena HHS and CDC if they didn’t comply with his subcommittee’s ongoing probe.
Following Kent’s interview with investigators on Monday, HHS canceled four interviews that had been scheduled with top CDC staff, including CDC Principal Deputy Director Anne Schuchat, Acting Chief of Staff Nina Witkofsky, Acting Deputy Chief of Staff Trey Moeller and communications official Kate Galatas. According to the oversight committee, HHS complained that the panel overstepped the bounds of its investigation during Kent’s interview.
The HHS spokesperson, who requested anonymity, said the subcommittee was “not operating in good faith.” House Minority Whip Steve Scalise of Lousiana, the top Republican on the coronavirus subcommittee, said the Democrats’ investigation has turned up “zero evidence of actual interference in CDC scientific reports.”
Alexander, who has since left HHS, spent months pushing career scientific officials to align their messages with Trump’s downplaying of the virus. In September, he tried to prevent infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci from speaking about the risks the coronavirus posed to children. In a Sept. 11 email previously obtained by POLITICO, Alexander also urged CDC officials to alter a report on the virus’ risks to young Americans, complicating the agency’s own efforts to review that report.
In Alexander’s Aug. 8 email, which was previously obtained by POLITICO, he insisted on an “immediate stop on all CDC MMWR reports due to the incompleteness of reporting.”
“Nothing to go out unless I read and agree with the findings how the CDC wrote it and I tweak it to ensure it is fair and balanced and ‘complete,'” Alexander added, in a breach of the scientific firewall that CDC has maintained for decades.
In the lengthy email, which switches between red and black font and yellow and blue highlighted text, Alexander laid out demands for retroactive changes to the CDC’s reports and insisted that the agency’s career scientists were trying to subvert Trump’s reelection bid.
HHS announced Sept. 16 that Alexander would exit the department, the same day that Caputo took leave.