Since the early days of the pandemic, the White House has often exhibited more apparent concern with managing public relations than with controlling the virus. In late February, the White House placed Katie Miller, Vice President Mike Pence’s communications director, in charge of all coronavirus-related communications. The messaging efforts of political appointees at key science agencies — including Michael Caputo at the Department of Health and Human Services and Emily Miller at the Food and Drug Administration — have also generated significant criticism.
American Oversight has recently obtained records from HHS that add to this picture of White House-centric communications operations. While Caputo is now on medical leave and Emily Miller was ousted from her role in August (though reportedly is still at the FDA), Katie Miller remains a key player in the White House’s coronavirus response. We previously obtained documents that provided a glimpse of how Miller’s efforts extended to arranging press interviews for FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn. The newly released records, spanning February and March, reveal additional details about Miller’s communications work and show that HHS officials knew the importance of masking early on.
The records show that on Feb. 27, the same day President Donald Trump announced that Pence would lead the federal government’s pandemic response, and the same day then acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney sent a government-wide email directing that all coronavirus-related communications go through Miller, she was handling a press inquiry from a reporter at the Daily Mail. The reporter emailed Miller to say she was “working on a piece about Democratic criticism of the Vice President’s qualifications to lead the administration’s response to the coronavirus.” Miller forwarded the email to Surgeon General Jerome Adams and asked him to give the reporter a call.
Miller also was involved in the schedule of Brett Giroir, the assistant secretary of health at HHS. On March 19, Giroir told Miller, “If you need me anywhere today (aside from 2PM at FEMA), just let me … know. We are at your service.” She replied, “Thank you. Just FEMA for now.” On March 25, Miller emailed Giroir telling him to come to a meeting, but then changed her mind: “Actually no need for tonight. Soon though.”
Like many top White House officials, Miller, who tested positive for the coronavirus in May, was rarely seen wearing a mask. Although President Trump and his advisers spent months downplaying the effectiveness of face coverings in controlling the spread of the virus, the HHS documents show some officials alluding to the importance of masks. In March, Deputy National Security Adviser Matthew Pottinger, who serves on the White House Coronavirus Task Force, and Robert Kadlec, the assistant secretary for preparedness and response at HHS, praised a public service announcement from the Czech Republic about the importance of masks.
The documents also include conversations between top officials and representatives of private companies.
On Feb. 29, Julie Radford, Ivanka Trump’s chief of staff, had a phone call with Melissa Flood, the vice president of public affairs at Marriott, who had requested the call in order to “give a heads up” and “make a request.” The next day, Flood asked Radford for information about a meeting between business leaders and the White House, to which White House Deputy Chief of Staff Chris Liddell and HHS Secretary Alex Azar were looped in. Days earlier, Marriott had closed nearly a quarter of its hotels in China and was facing rapidly falling revenues.
On March 26, employees at Korbel Wines reached out to White House officials about the ingredients in an emergency hand sanitizer the company was developing. Peter Navarro, an adviser to the president, directed requests about whether Korbel’s hand sanitizer complied with Federal Drug Administration guidelines to Kadlec, who repeatedly contacted the FDA for clarification. Korbel ultimately distributed emergency hand sanitizer in California.
Recently, American Oversight also obtained directives about CDC press outreach that include a note that “the new HHS comms team wants to focus on local media” as well as explicit instructions not to entertain interview requests from political commentator Greta Van Susteren or anyone at Voice of America. For more news about the pandemic, visit our Covid-19 Oversight Hub.
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