Trump ally accused of interfering with CDC reports to downplay coronavirus spread that could ‘hurt president’

Michael Caputo says he was guarding against ‘ulterior deep state motives in the bowels of CDC’

Kelsey Chapman
New York
Saturday 12 September 2020 18:20
Trump denounced for claiming 'coronavirus will be gone by April'

Trump administration officials asked to review and change scientific reports by the Centres for Disease Control and Protection to ensure they did not contradict the president’s optimistic view of the coronavirus pandemic, a report claims.

Communications aides allegedly tried to intimidate the CDC into altering reports, Politico reports.

One of them, Michael Caputo, told the outlet that he was guarding against “ulterior deep state motives in the bowels of CDC”.

Donald Trump’s messages to the public have frequently attacked the shutdowns in place to prevent the further spread of Covid-19, including a recent tweet in which he claims New York City mayor Bill DiBlasio and state governor Andrew Cuomo are “destroying the place” by allowing safety measures to remain intact as the city slowly reopens.

The aides, who are politically appointed to the Department of Health and Human Services, have demanded access to the CDC’s weekly scientific reports charting the progression of the virus. Politico and three sources familiar with the situation reviewed the emails and determined their tone to be one that seeks to intimidate the reports’ authors and dilute the information made available to health officials in the process.

According the three people familiar with the situation, the CDC has largely fought back in at attempt to maintain clear and honest reporting on the spread. Allegedly, though, they are increasingly willing to allow political officials to review the reports and change the wording to reflect a less dire situation than initially described.

Authors of the CDC’s weekly Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) include several career scientists, many also holding PhDs, including Editor-In-Chief Charlotte K Kent, who has nearly three decades of experience “directing the development, implementation, and evaluation of surveillance, epidemiologic, and health services research, and in managing public health programs at the local and federal level, including internationally.

Mr Caputo is a former Trump campaign official and staunch loyalist to the president with no scientific experience who was installed as the health department’s spokesperson in April to allegedly assert more control over the narrative painted by scientific reports.

The MMWR has largely operated without political interference according to longtime health department officials, but since his assignment to the position, Mr Caputo and his team have reportedly attempted to include caveats to the CDC reports including a retroactive addendum that infers sick Americans have contracted the virus due to their own personal behaviour and not as a matter of failings on the administration’s behalf. 

Another report Mr Caputo halted from public viewing was one on hydroxychloroquine, the malaria drug praised by Mr Trump for its effectiveness in treating Covid-19, in which the authors determined "the potential benefits of these drugs do not outweigh their risks." Mr Caputo’s team questioned the authors’ political leanings as reasoning why they would publish findings that go against the president’s assertions.

One email sent to CDC director Robert Redfield and other officials that was widely circulated inside the department and obtained by Politico saw Mr Caputo accuse the agency of trying to “hurt the President,” while appointee Paul Alexander called the scientific findings “hit pieces” that undermined Trump’s calls to reopen schools.

Dr Alexander has displayed indignation, telling CDC director Robert Redfield and other officials, “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, for it is outrageous. It's lunacy.”

Mr Caputo told Politico: “Dr Alexander advises me on pandemic policy and he has been encouraged to share his opinions with other scientists. Like all scientists, his advice is heard and taken or rejected by his peers.”

He said it was appropriate for the health department to review CDC reports, adding: “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."