Donald Trump appointees with no experience in public health celebrated when they managed to wrangle changes in warnings and reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in order to underplay the danger of COVID-19, according to emails obtained by a House subcommittee on the coronavirus crisis.
“Yippee!!!” gushed Paul Alexander, science adviser to the Department of Health and Human Services, to HHS public affairs chief Michael Caputo after he pressured the CDC to modify warnings about coronavirus risks to young people, according to one of the emails.
Alexander also plotted with Dr. Scott Atlas, the controversial White House coronavirus adviser, to help him write an opinion article dismissing a CDC report on risks to young people as “timed for the election.” Alexander added in the email that the point of the op-ed would be to “blunt the edge” of the CDC report.
More than 560,000 Americans have died of COVID-19 since the pandemic began. Trump’s COVID-19 task force leader, Dr. Deborah Birx, said last month that “hundreds of thousands” of those lives could have been saved had the Trump administration followed CDC advice and provided “consistent messaging” about social distancing, masks and business restrictions.
In another email correspondence, Caputo told Alexander last May: “I know the president wants us to enumerate the economic cost of not reopening. We need solid estimates to be able to say something like: 50,000 more cancer deaths! 40,000 more heart attacks! 25,000 more suicides!”
Caputo added: “You need to take ownership of these numbers. This is singularly important to what you and I want to achieve.”
Caputo, a onetime top official in Trump’s 2016 campaign, has no medical or scientific background. He claimed at the time that his battle against CDC information was a defense against the imagined “deep state” trying to undermine Trump.
His previous work in Russia raised fears about his true motivations. Caputo, who lived in Russia for six years, was an adviser to Boris Yeltsin from 1995 to 1999 and helped him get elected president. He also served as an adviser to a subsidiary of the state-owned energy company Gazprom and reportedly helped shore up Russian President Vladimir Putin’s reputation.
Caputo’s Kremlin ties were so concerning that he became a target of former special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Before he was appointed to his HHS role, Caputo scrubbed nearly his entire Twitter history, which was riddled with graphic, offensive attacks, outlandish conspiracy theories and racist comments about the Chinese.
The strategies to downplay the risks of the pandemic and shore up Trump’s optimistic forecasts continued even as the president knew how serious COVID-19 was, he later told Washington Post editor and author Bob Woodward.
“This is deadly stuff,” Trump told the journalist more than a year ago in a quote in Woodward’s book “Rage.” But Trump added in another interview shortly afterward: “I wanted to always play it down.”
Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), the subcommittee’s chair, wrote Friday to Alexander and Atlas complaining of “political interference” in scientific findings.
“Our investigation has shown that Trump Administration officials engaged in a persistent pattern of political interference in the nation’s public health response to the coronavirus pandemic, overruling and bullying scientists and making harmful decisions that allowed the virus to spread more rapidly,” Clyburn wrote.
Clyburn has called on Atlas and Alexander to be interviewed by his subcommittee early next month. He is also seeking more emails, noting that messages from officials were sometimes sent from personal accounts.
So this is thuggery, suitable for some tinpot dictatorship, where the great leader wants the science to say what he wants it to say. @SpoxHHS is a public health menace. #COVID19 https://t.co/4zxtItFoji
— Gregg Gonsalves (@gregggonsalves) September 12, 2020
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