As the number of U.S. coronavirus cases climbs past 2 million, with more than 120,000 deaths, information about the federal government’s response to the deadly pandemic is of the utmost urgency. But in a recent court filing, federal agencies have indicated they are attempting to delay the release of records related to White House efforts to control information — for up to two years.
In late February and early March, news reports emerged of a White House that was more preoccupied with political messaging than with public safety and, according to the Washington Post, “obsessed with a ‘communications problem.’” On the same day that a member of Congress told reporters that Dr. Anthony Fauci had been directed to cancel television appearances, CNN reported then-White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney had sent a government-wide email saying that all coronavirus-related communications had to go through Vice President Mike Pence’s office.
American Oversight filed Freedom of Information Act requests with the Department of Health and Human Services and three component agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration, for records of coronavirus-related messaging directives as well as emails with White House officials; we sued in late April when the agencies did not produce the requested documents.
After we filed the lawsuit, the FDA stated that if American Oversight agreed to narrow our request for the communications directives, the agency could process the request in 8 to 12 weeks. Because of concern that the FDA’s proposed approach to searching for the records was poorly targeted, we proposed a simple alternative and upped the timetable to 15 full weeks. Suddenly, the government claims the proposal is “wildly unrealistic.”
But as coronavirus cases hit record high numbers in multiple states, the White House has been pushing a narrative that concern about the spikes is “overblown” panic created by the media. Recent polling from the Pew Research Center found that people who primarily rely on the White House for their Covid-19 news are more likely to downplay the pandemic’s severity. At the same time, only 3 in 10 Americans are very confident in their own ability to fact-check the news about the crisis.
Mixed messages from President Donald Trump and a dramatic reduction in communications from the federal government have made releasing information about the pandemic — including about whether the Trump administration has muzzled health experts and blocked the release of information — especially urgent. “These records are relevant today,” wrote American Oversight in its recent joint status report, “particularly considering that the administration continues to actively push a narrative that the current situation is not as dire as the facts show it to be.”
You can read the full court filing here, and learn more about our investigation into the government’s coronavirus response here.
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