As the country reels from surging numbers of COVID-19 cases, former Trump appointees who served key roles in the CDC detailed their experiences with Trump administration officials meddling in the agency’s public messaging in interviews with the New York Times published Wednesday.
Installed in the CDC in 2018, Kyle McGowan, a former chief of staff at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and his deputy, Amanda Campbell, expressed their disillusionment after witnessing the White House undercut the agency’s voice and its repeated meddling into the CDC’s messaging to the public in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
McGowan and Campbell, who left the CDC in August and opened a health policy consulting firm after their departure, also outlined to the Times their concerns that the agency will take years to rebuild its credibility after the Trump administration largely sidelined it in favor of messaging in line with President Trump’s, downplaying the severity of the pandemic.
The former CDC staffers told the Times that the White House insisted on reviewing and tamping down the agency’s closely guarded COVID-19 guidance documents, which publicly address findings on its latest research efforts as well a scientific consensus on the spread of the novel coronavirus.
According to the Times, the CDC’s documents were vetted not only by the White House’s coronavirus task force but by what felt to the agency’s employees like an “endless loop of political appointees across Washington.”
McGowan and Campbell told the Times that their duties often involved mediating between CDC director Robert Redfield and agency scientists whenever the White House’s demands would arrive.
According to the Times, McGowan and Campbell recalled receiving edits from White House budget director Russell Vought and senior counselor Kellyanne Conway regarding guidance on choirs and communion in faith communities. The former CDC officials told the NYT that Ivanka Trump, the President’s daughter and aide, would offer suggestions as well on schools — which her father vehemently pushed to reopen.
“Every time that the science clashed with the messaging, messaging won,” McGowan told the Times.
Both McGowan and Campbell recounted absurd episodes of meddling from the Trump administration, which included White House officials demanding last spring that the CDC take down its app that allowed Americans to screen themselves for symptoms of COVID-19. The demand came after the Trump administration developed a similar tool with Apple.
Campbell, who told the Times that at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic she was confident the agency had the best scientists in the world — “just like we had in the past” — was frustrated by the Trump administration’s political meddling that undercut scientists.
“What was so different, though, was the political involvement, not only from HHS but then the White House, ultimately, that in so many ways hampered what our scientists were able to do,” Campbell told the Times.