This week, a senior official at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told congressional investigators that CDC Director Robert Redfield instructed staff to delete an email from a Trump political appointee who had attempted to interfere with the agency’s scientific reports. American Oversight on Thursday called on the CDC and the Department of Health and Human Services to ensure that the email and other records are preserved, or recovered, as required by federal law.
American Oversight has ongoing Freedom of Information Act lawsuits against the administration, including for communications-related orders and directives from officials at the CDC and HHS. The email in question is the type of record that may be responsive to those requests.
According to reporting by Politico, Redfield’s order came in response to an Aug. 8 email sent by Paul Alexander, the former scientific adviser to Michael Caputo, the assistant secretary of public affairs at HHS. In the email, Alexander demanded an “immediate stop” on all of the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports (MMWRs) and said, “Nothing to go out unless I read and agree with the findings … and I tweak it to ensure it is fair and balanced and ‘complete.’”
In September, Politico released records showing Caputo and Alexander had successfully reviewed and altered CDC reports to align with President Donald Trump’s statements minimizing the dangers of Covid-19. Alexander had admonished CDC officials for warning that Covid-19 could spread through reopened schools, accusing the officials of trying to “hurt the President.” Caputo’s team had also delayed the release of important MMWRs such as one detailing information about hydroxychloroquine, the malaria drug that Trump endorsed as a coronavirus treatment. Less than a week after this news broke, HHS announced Alexander’s departure from the agency. Caputo has since taken a leave of absence for medical reasons.
Congress launched an investigation that month to determine the full scope of this political interference, and on Thursday, the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis requested that HHS and the CDC comply with this investigation and produce related records.
American Oversight’s letter to counsel for CDC and HHS leadership seeks assurances by noon on Monday, Dec. 14, that efforts will be undertaken to preserve the email, or recover it if it has been deleted, and ensure that other potentially responsive records are being appropriately preserved. If the agencies fail to respond, we are prepared to ask a federal court to intervene to prevent the loss of the records. We are also sending a letter to the National Archives and Records Administration requesting that NARA take immediate action to prevent further destruction and to recover any unlawfully deleted records to the extent possible.
American Oversight has been investigating the administration’s political interference at scientific agencies, as well as the potential violations of record-preservation laws. We have previously filed requests seeking Michael Caputo’s communications with external entities and CDC leadership, and we will be continuing our document preservation efforts. We have filed FOIAs seeking Alexander’s deleted email, any directives from senior officials to destroy documents, and a broad request for all Redfield’s sent email and text messages during the Covid-19 crisis, to ensure that Redfield’s communications are preserved in light of his role in this crisis.
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