White House bid to control CDC message

​​The two appointees assigned to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Atlanta headquarters in June have no public health background.

New York: The Trump White House has installed two political operatives at the nation’s top public health agency to try to control the information it releases about the coronavirus pandemic as the administration seeks to paint a positive outlook, sometimes at odds with the scientific evidence.

The two appointees assigned to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Atlanta headquarters in June have no public health background. They have instead been tasked with keeping an eye on Dr Robert Redfield, the agency director, as well as scientists, according to a half-dozen CDC and administration officials who spoke to AP on condition of anonymity to discuss internal government affairs.

The appointments were part of a push to get more “politicals” into the CDC to help control messaging after a handful of leaks were “upsetting the apple cart”, said an administration official. When the two appointees showed up in Atlanta, their roles were a mystery to senior CDC staff, the people said.

They had not even been assigned offices. Eventually one, Nina Witkofsky, became acting chief of staff, an influential role as Redfield’s right hand. The other, her deputy Chester “Trey” Moeller, also began sitting in on scientific meetings, the sources said.

It’s not clear to what extent the two appointees have affected the agency’s work, according to interviews with multiple CDC officials. But congressional investigators are examining that very question after evidence has mounted of political interference in CDC scientific publications, guidance documents and web postings.

Moeller said in an email to The AP, “I work for Dr Redfield who is 100% committed to the science and the thousands of incredibly dedicated employees at the CDC working on behalf of the American people.” During previous pandemics such as Ebola or SARS, the CDC was the public face of the US response, offering scientifically driven advice to doctors and patients alike.

The agency played the same role at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, but stumbled in February when a test for the virus sent to states proved to be flawed. Then, in late February, a top CDC infectious disease expert, Dr Nancy Messonnier, upset the administration by speaking frankly at a news conference about the dangers of the virus when the president was still downplaying it.

Within weeks, the agency was pushed offstage as President Donald Trump and other administration officials, during daily news briefings, became the main sources of information about the US epidemic and the attempts to control it. Still, CDC persisted in assembling science-based information that conflicted with the White House narrative.

In May, a series of leaked emails and scientific documents obtained by AP detailed how the White House had buried CDC’s detailed guidelines for communities reopening during a still-surging pandemic. The emails revealed that the administration was vetting CDC’s science through the Office of Management and Budget, rather than relying on its medical experts on the White House coronavirus task force.

The resulting news stories of the shelving of the documents angered the administration, and sparked renewed efforts to exert control over CDC, according to current and former officials. Witkofsky was installed initially as a senior adviser to Redfield.

In a few weeks, she would take over as the agency's acting chief of staff and gradually become the person at CDC headquarters who has the most daily interactions with him, the CDC officials said.

Witkofsky’s deputy, Moeller, who began work on the same day, is a longtime GOP supporter who worked on the Bush-Cheney presidential campaign in 2004.

The most recent post on his Facebook page was a “Make America Great Again” Trump campaign banner. They wanted him to sit in meetings and “listen to scientists”, said a former CDC official.
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