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House Oversight Committee Chair: Testimony Points To Political Interference At CDC

Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., who chairs the House's panel on the coronavirus, warned that if the Department of Health and Human Services failed to produce all missing documents by Dec. 15, the panel "will have no choice but to issue subpoenas to compel production." (Kevin Lamarque/AP)
Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., who chairs the House's panel on the coronavirus, warned that if the Department of Health and Human Services failed to produce all missing documents by Dec. 15, the panel "will have no choice but to issue subpoenas to compel production." (Kevin Lamarque/AP)

A new kerfuffle is unfolding in a House oversight committee with the Democratic chair accusing White House appointees of political meddling and attempting to influence the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention strategies on the coronavirus pandemic in a manner that paints the administration in a more favorable light.

In a Thursday letter to the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, Rep. James Clyburn expressed "serious concern about what may be deliberate efforts by the Trump Administration to conceal and destroy evidence that senior political appointees interfered with career officials' response to the coronavirus crisis" at the CDC.

Clyburn, a Democrat from South Carolina, chairs the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis. In addition to HHS Secretary Alex Azar, the letter was also addressed to CDC Director Robert Redfield.

Clyburn suggested Redfield may have instructed subordinates to delete an email from an HHS appointee instructing the CDC to alter or rescind reports believed to be damaging to President Trump. The congressman also accused Redfield of pushing back the publication of a report on a coronavirus outbreak among children in Georgia so that the White House could continue to push for school reopenings.

The allegations stem from the transcribed interview of Charlotte Kent, chief of the Scientific Publications Branch and editor-in-chief of the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report at the CDC, who addressed Select Subcommittee staff on Monday. During her testimony, Kent said she was instructed to delete an Aug. 8 email sent by HHS senior advisor Paul Alexander, and that she understood the direction came from the CDC head Redfield.

As she recounted the incident, Alexander's email demanded that the CDC insert new language in a previously published scientific report on coronavirus risks to children or "pull it down and stop all reports immediately," according to Clyburn.

The letter says Alexander also vented about alleged bias within the CDC against Trump: "CDC tried to report as if once kids get together, there will be spread and this will impact school reopening. ... Very misleading by CDC and shame on them. Their aim is clear. ... This is designed to hurt this Presidnet [sic] for their reasons which I am not interested in."

Alexander, who served as a scientific advisor to HHS spokesman Michael Caputo, is no longer with the department. He left in September and is now is an assistant professor of health research at McMaster University near Toronto. Caputo formerly served as a Trump campaign official. He has no medical or scientific background.

This is not the first time Alexander has been called out as improperly trying to influence the nation's leading health officials. In September, Politico uncovered emails showing Alexander tried to prevent Anthony Fauci, the government's top infectious disease expert, from speaking about the risks that coronavirus poses to children.

Earlier this week, Kent explained that when she later searched for the email it had already vanished. Federal employees must generally preserve documents under the Federal Records Act. When asked, she said she did not know who had deleted the correspondence.

On Thursday Clyburn said the Trump Administration's "political meddling with the nation's coronavirus response has put American lives at greater risk," and called the efforts "dangerous." He called for all documents to be preserved or recovered.

House Republicans on the Select Subcommittee, including ranking member Steve Scalise of Louisiana, called Clyburn's allegations false, adding that all stonewalling claims have been debunked.

"The Select Subcommittee Democrats' letter drastically mischaracterizes Dr. Kent's interview," Scalise wrote in a statement.

"The letter fails to acknowledge the predicate of the Democrats' investigation is now fully debunked. Despite there being zero evidence of actual interference in CDC scientific reports, Select Subcommittee Democrats continue to search for illusory evidence in obstruction of the Trump Administration's unprecedented whole-of-America response to the coronavirus pandemic."

He added that during Monday's testimony, Kent, a career CDC official, "unequivocally confirmed that there was no political interference and the scientific integrity of the MMWR was never compromised."

"Case closed," he declared.

Redfield also addressed the allegations on Thursday, issuing a statement that reads: "Regarding the email in question, I instructed CDC staff to ignore Dr. Alexander's comments."

"As I testified before Congress, I am fully committed to maintaining the independence of the MMWR, and I stand by that statement."

Meanwhile, Clyburn is now seeking to interview Redfield about the incident.

He says that hours after Kent's testimony, HHS "abruptly canceled" four additional transcribed interviews the select subcommittee had scheduled for the week. Clyburn called it part of a broader pattern of "obstruction" and warned that if the Department failed to produce all missing documents by Dec. 15, "the Select Subcommittee will have no choice but to issue subpoenas to compel production."

Copyright NPR 2021.

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