Political HHS Appointees Demand Authority to Rewrite CDC Reports

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.
Politico recently published an exclusive report, based on its own investigation, Trump officials interfered with CDC reports on Covid-19:

The health department’s politically appointed communications aides have demanded the right to review and seek changes to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s weekly scientific reports charting the progress of the coronavirus pandemic, in what officials characterized 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, according to emails reviewed by POLITICO and three people familiar with the situation.

I’m posting this a couple days after Trump communications aide Michael Caputo spoke about details regarding the CDC and went public on Facebook with allegations that political unrest will follow – including armed rebellion – after November’s elections. Alas, he also urged Trump supporters to prepare (see this WaPo account Top Trump health appointee Michael Caputo warns of armed insurrection after election; there are similar reports to be found at the NYT, NY Mag, and Forbes).

Of course this is being reported as news live and straight from the cray cray zone. But does anyone seriously doubt that the upcoming electoral cycle will be a particularly fraught one? Would you want to warrant and guarantee personally that the losing side will stand down? Does anyone remember what happened in 2016? And it’s a measure of just how seriously political reporting has degraded that this warning is regarded as beyond the pale.

Politico Report

As to that Politico report, the first thing any self-respecting writer should ask herself when faced with the latest manifestation of such textbook pearl clutching, is is it true? And does it make any sense?

Now, one thing I zeroed in on was the doctored (?, sorry, you must grant me that) reports themselves. Because I could see if they were essentially political reports – subject to interpretation – the political appointees might have a point.

Much as their “corrections” might seem to fly in the face of mainstream scientific consensus. But as we should surely have understood by now, there’s no hard and fast division between “scientific” and “political”. And why has that old but catchy Monkees tune, Shades of Gray, popped into my head- from which it will be extremely difficult to banish again.

So, I’m going to pass on the favor:

Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports

Back to the reports at issue. The reports we are talking about are the well-respected Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports. Now, as it happens, I am familiar with these reports. Which I first saw long before the current pandemic arose. Nearly three decades ago, my husband and I lived in our first post-education apartment – a rather nice third floor walk-up in Brooklyn Heights, smallish, but with a balcony that looked out over shared abutting garden space.

And among the other tenants was Dr. Linda Attoe, a leading NYC AIDS doctor – in the era in which there was no cure or therapy: AIDS was then an automatic death sentence. Until it wasn’t. But it was then and not something you would wish on anyone.

All of us who occupied floors in that small walk-up received common mail delivery, and whoever collected the dropped-off mail sorted it into piles for everyone who lived there.

Linda lived with her then-husband in the basement garden flat, and she took a subscription to the Morbidity and Mortality weekly Report. Now, I’d like to think I have at least the basic writing skills of the typical executive branch political appointee. And I regularly write on complex topics.

But I would never purport to be able to rewrite any edition of the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Nor could I envision any scenario where I might want to.

Yet this is what Trump appointees asked to do, according to Politico account and this Ars Technica account, Political appointees demand ability to rewrite CDC case reports:

Paul Alexander, one of the few involved who has an epidemiology background, complained in another email, “CDC tried to report as if once kids get together, there will be spread and this will impact school re-opening… Very misleading by CDC and shame on them.” Yet that’s exactly what appears to be happening in many locations, suggesting the CDC has a better grasp on the issue than Alexander does.

The political staff has attempted to block the release of some of the Morbidity and Mortality reports and demanded the ability to review and edit all future reports. (Alexander, apparently unironically, suggested he needed to ensure the reports were “fair and balanced.”) While all of the planned reports were eventually published, Politico indicates that the non-scientific staff are gaining increased oversight of the reports prior to their publication.

Now, I ask, would anyone on their right mind seek to do this?
Don’t these people see that their machinations undercut their legitimate case that much of the media IS biased against them. As well as many (most? some?) members of the permanent civil service.

Another point: from my discussions with past Tump voters – one of whom told me, “I don’t deny that Trump has problems. But knowing that, the Democrats give us Joe Biden. She finds the persistent piling on to Trump to be a turn-off, and one reason she may vote for him again. And that’s why I think the vote may be a lot closer than anyone now predicts – although much will undoubtedly happen before the election.

And please, dear readers, use your critical reading skills. I didn’t just say I want Trump to win re-election. I say he might win. I’ve learned to practice strict neutrality on U.S. political outcomes. I’m agnostic as to declaring which result I might prefer – but I will gladly opine on the likelihood of various outcomes.

That being said, the HHS claims, according to Ars Technica:

Rather than recognizing that facts aren’t supportive of their policies, the administration’s political appointees have apparently decided that the CDC is not presenting the facts because it’s trying to undercut Trump. Politico quotes Michael Caputo, a former Trump campaign official now at Health and Human Services, as saying, “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.” One of the emails obtained for the story, written by another political appointee, says, “CDC to me appears to be writing hit pieces on the administration,” and another accused the reports of being used to “hurt the president.”

Are these people so unaware of the U.S. COVID-19 record, compared to the rest of the world? Perhaps.

Trump seems to think that if we all just clap our hands, and engage in happy talk, we can simply chase the pandemic away.

I wish it were so easy!

Well, guess what, we can’t. And the sooner the U.S. turns to following tried and tested pandemic-control measures – and joins other grown-up countries in eschewing magical thinking – the greater our chance of getting this whole nightmare under control..

Or, to paraphrase a partner I used to work with extensively while at Sullivan & Cromwell – who, incidentally, was renowned for not suffering fools gladly – used to say when he had to straighten out some mess made by some hapless associate who failed to read a SEC rule – “these rules are publicly available.”

With respect to COVID-19, there may not be all that many rules to follow, but some do exist, and these are publicly known and available. And one only has to take a cursory glance at the COVID -19 figures for countries that have followed them and compare those numbers to those for the United States, to see just how badly we are faring.

Don’t take it from me, either, look at what no less a figure than Bill Gates said in today’s Stat Bill Gates slams ‘shocking’ U.S. response to Covid-19 pandemic.

It should perhaps not need saying, but this is the only time I can remember quoting Bill Gates with approval. And just because I may not agree with him as to what we should do, I can wholeheartedly agree that U.S. performance thus far has been a disaster – especially so when compared to those countries that have handled the pandemic reasonably well.

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15 comments

  1. MartyH

    Could this be a case of pre-Trump CDC insiders pearl-clutching over the temerity of “outsiders” questioning the “facts” they draw from the data? If that was even the slightest bit true, could we entirely dismiss the political biases … the desire to maintain a position?

    Reply
    1. L

      No. Look closely at the changes being pushed and this isn’t a matter of policy it literally comes down to attempting to claim that masks don’t reduce spread or that children don’t get it. That isn’t positioning but about basic facts.

      I see this as more a case of people focusing on the science being overriden by people who expect facts to be tailored to fit their desired ends (i.e. school reopenings).

      Reply
    2. CitizenSissy

      Point taken, but two issues – one might think a passing acquaintance with the scientific issues you’re distilling for public consumption might be helpful for the effective political appointee.

      Michael Caputo, a hack of headspinning paranoia, doesn’t need his actions spinned. He needs instead a large roll of tinfoil for a hat and a peaceful, long sabbatical.

      Reply
  2. Tom Stone

    As to the election, one thing is guaranteed.
    The American people will lose.
    I expect it to be close with a high likelihood the Supremes will once again annoint and appoint a President.
    Will there be violence this time?
    That seems a certainty.

    Reply
  3. Sheldon

    If they can rewrite CDC reports to reflect personal preferences, why can’t we rewrite our obedience to the IRS Taxcode to reflect personal preferences?

    Reply
  4. Laura in So Cal

    Posting as someone with some experience in bureaucratic in-fighting.
    1. CDC is part of HHS. Communications people in HHS should be REQUIRED to review everything coming out of all their subsidiary agencies so they understand what is being released. I don’t think they need permission for this. As an example of no review being done, multiple state health departments released erroneous data because no one really reviewed it until weeks had passed and they discovered a software error that was causing some results not to be included. California released inaccurate/low positive case numbers for several weeks because of this.
    2. HHS should be able to request that the CDC re-examine their communications for factual errors or erroneous conclusions. If in fact, the CDC does their review and they are sure of their facts. They should be allowed to released them unchanged.
    3. HHS has the right to add additional data or conclusions based on other data points as long as it is separately notated as not being from the CDC. This creates a lot of confusion and isn’t recommended, but it would allow everyone to see all points of view especially if what is being released isn’t data, but opinion no matter how “expert.”
    4. Of course, for this to properly work, you need good will, respect, and the ultimate goal of good data with no slanting of opinion in any way. I don’t that is happening much these days.

    Reply
  5. Ignacio

    Playing political games with what should otherwise be scientific reports wouldn’t be anything exclusive of US politics. To my shame, where I live, the reporting is quite awful. I am talking about the Comunidad de Madrid, where it is very difficult to have an idea on what is going on with Covid in real time. The strategy used here has been adding complexity, without explaining.

    Each day, the authorities report the new Covid cases diagnosed but these cases then seem to be classified as “new for the last 24 hours” –which I interpret as individuals that were sampled AND tested for Covid in the last 24 hours–, and new grand total of cases that are “incorporated in the statistics” but probably correspond to PCR results obtained in the last 24 hours from samples taken for as long as a week before. The latter number of positives will engross the daily statistics of about 7-9 previous days.

    Using this method you have a report for cases in the last 24 hours that greatly underestimates the real number of daily cases (by including only those sampled + tested in the very same day). For this reason, the daily number of cases reported is useless and it will increase (greatly) during the following week and you can only count with some degree of confidence on daily cases from 7-9 days before and backwards. This is not noticed in the reports and if you carelessly look at them you will always have the false impression that the situation has somehow improved in the last week. This is not a bug, this is a feature. Besides, no data on positivity rates are provided. This all started as a political game to provide support for a shorter lockdown in Madrid I guess.

    If only they marked the new daily cases as ‘provisional’ for at least a week this would help to interpret the reports and it would be more neutral politically talking.

    Reply
  6. skippy

    I find this reminiscent of an old NC unpacking of the last Rev to the DSM and concerns about its politicization to forward an ideological agenda.

    Basically just another layer of corruption and a tool to administrate the Scotts box some call neoliberal economics E.g. its just so reminiscent of former pagan kings or the Tudors ….

    Wellie I’m off to pick up 15 year old son up at the land before time at his uncles Yabba forest property at Kingaham – https://parks.des.qld.gov.au/parks/jimna/camping

    Reply
  7. LilD

    2020 vision just means we’re flying blind
    Wish we had a leader with the public good in mind
    Bully from the red team and a zombie from the blues
    Even if I flip a coin either way we lose
    Just heard from the doctor, nothing but bad news
    Got no antibodies for coronavirus blues.

    Reply
  8. bobswern

    If anyone bothers to take a look at Michael Caputo’s (HHS Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs; a/k/a lead communications director and spokesperson) Wiki page, they’ll realize that we’re talking about an individual leading this effort that has already admitted, in the past few days, that he’s mentally and physically unfit. Lo and behold: https://www.forbes.com/sites/joewalsh/2020/09/15/embattled-hhs-spokesperson-caputo-reportedly-may-take-leave-of-absence/#450bd36825f0

    Here’s Caputo’s Wikipedia page. The guy’s a (total political hack) protege of Roger Stone! Absolutely no experience in healthcare, prior to taking his HHS position in April.

    Per the Wiki link, below, you’ll read him describing (just yesterday, in fact) his frame of mind: His “…mental health has definitely failed.”

    (You just can’t make this stuff up!)

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Caputo

    Reply
  9. tonybutka

    You would think that if the political hacks rewrite CDC advice and people get sick or die, that they would be personally liable.

    Reply

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