CDC director allegedly ordered deletion of email

The chair of the House committee overseeing the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic alleged in a letter that the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) ordered his staff to delete an email sent by a Trump administration health official seeking to alter a scientific report for political purposes.

“I write today to express my 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,” wrote Congressman Jim Clyburn, the House Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis chair. The letter, dated Thursday, was addressed to CDC director Robert Redfield and Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar.

Clyburn wrote that a career CDC official had said in a transcribed interview with subcommittee staff this week that she was instructed to delete an email from HHS senior adviser Dr. Paul Alexander asking the CDC to change or rescind information in a department report about the effect of the coronavirus on children. Dr. Charlotte Kent, the chief of the Scientific Publications Branch and editor-in-chief of the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), told subcommittee staff that “she understood the direction came from Director Redfield.”

Although Kent said she had not spoken directly with Redfield about this instruction, it was passed down to her by her supervisor as coming from the director. Kent said she considered the request “very unusual.” The letter by Clyburn notes that destruction of federal documents is potentially illegal under the Federal Records Act.

The letter also said Kent told subcommittee staff that the CDC had delayed publication of a MMWR article regarding an outbreak at a Georgia summer camp “to ensure that the scientific report would not be released until after Dr. Redfield’s July 31, 2020, testimony before the Select Subcommittee.” The article was initially set to be published on July 29, but the delay was requested by Redfield and HHS. During his testimony on July 31, Redfield did not mention the outbreak at the Georgia summer camp, but argued schools should reopen for “face-to-face learning” in September.

Clyburn also noted in his letter that HHS has not responded fully to requests for documents and information relating to potential administration interference in the CDC coronavirus response.

“The Department has produced some documents, which consist primarily of publicly available articles, incomplete sets of emails related to Dr. Alexander, and a small number of other emails from CDC,” the letter said. Clyburn also wrote that after the interview with Kent, HHS “abruptly canceled” four other transcribed interviews scheduled with CDC employees.

“Hours after Dr. Kent’s interview in which she revealed she was instructed to delete a key document, your staff wrote to Select Subcommittee staff that the Department is “cancelling the interviews that were scheduled for this week,” baselessly attacking the Select Subcommittee staff’s integrity as a pretextual justification for doing so,” the letter said.

In the letter, Clyburn requested HHS provide all documents and communications related to deleting Alexander’s email or withholding documents or information from the subcommittee.

“With coronavirus cases, hospitalizations, and deaths in the United States reaching new records, it is critical that the American people can trust the federal government to provide accurate public health information based on the best science — not based on politics,” Clyburn wrote.

However, Republicans on the committee were quick to refute the letter. Subcommittee Ranking Member Steve Scalise said in a statement that Clyburn’s letter “drastically mischaracterizes Dr. Kent’s interview.”

“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. Dr. 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,” Scalise said.

Nearly 290,000 Americans have died from the virus, and over 15 million have contracted it.