Opinion: How the Trump administration undercut the CDC

As the coronavirus swept across the United States in 2020, there was the unsettling feeling that the Trump White House had muzzled public health experts at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

And that’s exactly what was going on.

A new report released by Congress this week goes into head-shaking detail about how politics repeatedly got in the way of science — in part because of concerns about how the virus outbreak would reflect on President Donald Trump and his reelection bid.

The effort to sideline the CDC started after a coronavirus briefing for reporters on Feb. 25, 2020, when the CDC’s deputy director, Dr. Anne Schuchat, said, “It’s likely this virus will cause a pandemic.”

That observation angered Trump — as the White House then blocked the CDC from holding briefings for the next three months.

“They would not clear our briefings,” said the CDC’s chief at that time, Dr. Robert Redfield.

There was also an effort to limit scientific papers from the CDC about how the coronavirus spread — as one official accused the agency of doing ”hit pieces” that were ”designed to hurt” Trump.

One example was a CDC review of a virus outbreak at a Georgia summer camp that found ”efficient spread of the virus among campers and staff.”

“It just sends the wrong message,” one official said about the findings.

Another coronavirus paper drew the ire of Trump White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, who called the deputy CDC chief to register his displeasure.

“I was very shaken,” Schuchat testified.

Overall, the probe found evidence that Trump administration officials tried to alter or delay at least 19 scientific coronavirus reports from the CDC in 2020.

The interference even extended to the 2020 election — as a CDC recommendation for Americans to use mail-in voting as a way to stay safe from the virus was scrapped.

Asked how to prevent such meddling by political appointees in the future, Redfield told investigators the best idea is to make the CDC more independent.

“You should appoint a director there for seven to 10 years,” as Redfield said the CDC should be modeled on the FBI.

“The Justice Department doesn’t tell the FBI what they can say,” he testified.

But Redfield said the virus outbreak had also revealed the need for major change inside the CDC.

“The culture at the agency is not a response agency,” Redfield said. “I think it’s critical to rebuild the trust.”

The CDC certainly hasn’t done everything right about the COVID-19 outbreak. Its public messaging has been at times clumsy and confusing.

But it didn’t help that Trump administration officials were routinely interfering in its work.

Jamie Dupree has covered national politics and the Congress from Washington since the Reagan administration. His column appears weekly in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. For more, check out his Capitol Hill newsletter at http://jamiedupree.substack.com.