Health Department aides appointed by US President Donald Trump tried to interfere with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) weekly COVID-19 reports in order to shape the data to fit the president's coronavirus-related agenda, Politico has reported, citing three people familiar with the matter.
According to the report, officials describe it as "an attempt to intimidate the reports’ authors and water down their communications to health professionals".
"In some cases, 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", Politico claimed, citing e-mails reviewed by the media outlet and three people familiar with the situation.
The CDC has reportedly "fought back" against "the most sweeping changes", but allegedly agreed at times to have "compromised on the wording", the three unnamed sources said.
According to the report, it has primarily been a Trump-appointed health department official, Michael Caputo, who has instructed the CDC to alter its reports to fit Trump's statements.
"Caputo and his team have attempted to add caveats to the CDC's findings, including an effort to retroactively change agency reports that they said wrongly inflated the risks of Covid-19 and should have made clear that Americans sickened by the virus may have been infected because of their own behavior", Politico's sources suggest.
Attempts to change the language of the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports (MMWR) regarding COVID-19 that are written by scientists and health experts have reportedly been made throughout the summer and up to "as recently as Friday afternoon".
Some CDC reports saw attempts to have them halted or delayed, as Politico detailed a report on how doctors prescribe hydroxychloroquine - an anti-malarial drug promoted by Trump as effective against COVID-19.
Caputo told Politico that his Health Department has acted appropriately in reviewing the CDC reports.
“Our intention is to make sure that evidence, science-based data drives policy through this pandemic—not ulterior deep state motives in the bowels of CDC," he said, referring to a 'deep-state' conspiracy theory previously promoted by Trump and his reelection campaign.
According to The New York Times, Caputo on Saturday admitted that Politico’s report was largely accurate, but denied placing overt pressure on the health agency to distort the data.
Trump's Coronavirus Response
The US president has long faced condemnation over how the pandemic has been addressed, with some noting that his administration intentionally downplayed the threat that coronavirus poses.
Backlash was fueled by the recent release of Bob Woodward's book "Rage", in which Trump explained to the prominent journalist in March that he tried to downplay the threat of the pandemic, but claimed that he minimised the danger so as to avoid panic. On Wednesday, during a press conference, Trump conceded that he did so, suggesting that he "perhaps" misled the US public.
The revelation immediately drew additional criticism from Trump's Democratic presidential rival, Joe Biden, who accused the president of failing to take action to save 54,000 lives, adding that Trump's actions are "beyond despicable, it's a dereliction of duty".
The current White House press secretary, commenting on the Woodward book, declared that Trump "has never lied to the American public on Covid", but admitted that he might have downplayed the severity of pandemic because he did not "want to see chaos".
Despite the withering storm of criticism, the president prefers to brag about his administration's response to the pandemic, particularly citing widespread successful testing, calling for the reopening of cities and schools.