White House Control of Information During the Pandemic

President Trump’s early denials about the severity of Covid-19 quickly morphed into a misguided strategy of sidelining experts and exerting political control over messaging. Our investigation aims to uncover to what extent the White House has interfered with coronavirus-related information in service of the president’s political interests.

During a public health crisis such as the coronavirus pandemic, trust in institutions and government agencies is vital. But since the first few months of the pandemic, President Donald Trump has repeatedly undermined medical experts and scientists as his administration has sought to stifle and control information about the disease’s spread. The president’s own statements — including downplaying Covid-19 as a regular flu and blaming the Obama administration — reflected what many saw as a preoccupation with the economy and his own political standing over concerns about public health. 

On Feb. 28, 2020, Rep. John Garamendi told reporters that Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was directed to “stand down” and to cancel five Sunday morning talk show appearances. That same day, CNN reported that acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney had sent a government-wide email saying that all coronavirus-related communications must go through Katie Miller, the press secretary for Vice President Mike Pence, who had just taken control over the federal government’s response to the coronavirus. At the same time, the Washington Post reported that “the White House has been obsessed with a ‘communications problem.’” Questions arose about changes to a page on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website and, later, about the removal of Dr. Rick Bright as director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority.

As the number of cases drastically increased over the summer, the White House continued to take worrying actions to further divide the president and science. A senior adviser at the Department of Health and Human Services denounced a CDC report about risks to pregnant women as “undermining the president,” and Trump publicly criticized the CDC’s recommendations for the safe reopening of schools in the fall. In July came the alarming news that the administration had ordered hospitals to send all Covid-19 patient data to HHS instead of the CDC, igniting fears that the information could be politicized, or even withheld from the public.

Further attacks on Fauci have painted a troubling picture of an administration opposed to facts, science, and expertise when they don’t serve the president’s political interests. American Oversight is examining how this aversion to inconvenient realities has led to a tightening grip on data and public information, undermining efforts to combat the pandemic.

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