How the CDC was subverted by Trump

ProPublica has another explosive report, this time about how the Centers for Disease Control, once highly admired all around the world for the skill and expertise of its scientists in dealing with global health problems, has become a shadow of its former self, with career scientists dismayed at how the Trump administration has undermined and belittled its efforts. The feckless leadership of Robert Redfield, a Trump appointee, has been ineffective in defending its institutional honor. ProPublica bases its article on internal emails and reports and interviews with CDC officials.

When the next history of the CDC is written, 2020 will emerge as perhaps the darkest chapter in its 74 years, rivaled only by its involvement in the infamous Tuskegee experiment, in which federal doctors withheld medicine from poor Black men with syphilis, then tracked their descent into blindness, insanity and death.

With more than 216,000 people dead this year, most Americans know the low points of the current chapter already. A vaunted agency that was once the global gold standard of public health has, with breathtaking speed, become a target of anger, scorn and even pity.

How could an agency that eradicated smallpox globally and wiped out polio in the United States have fallen so far?

Senior CDC staff describe waging battles that are as much about protecting science from the White House as protecting the public from COVID-19. It is a war that they have, more often than not, lost.

Employees spoke openly about their “hill to die on” — the political interference that would prompt them to leave. Yet again and again, they surrendered and did as they were told. It wasn’t just worries over paying mortgages or forfeiting the prestige of the job. Many feared that if they left and spoke out, the White House would stop consulting the CDC at all, and would push through even more dangerous policies.

To some veteran scientists, this acquiescence was the real sign that the CDC had lost its way. One scientist swore repeatedly in an interview and said, “The cowardice and the caving are disgusting to me.”

Collectively, the interviews and documents show an insular, rigorous agency colliding head-on with an administration desperate to preserve the impression that it had the pandemic under control.

Once seen as an apolitical bulwark, the CDC endured meddling on multiple fronts by officials with little or no public health experience, from Trump’s daughter Ivanka to Stephen Miller, the architect of the president’s immigration crackdown. A shifting and mysterious cast of political aides and private contractors — what one scientist described as young protégés of Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, “wearing blue suits with red ties and beards” — crowded into important meetings about key policy decisions.

Agency insiders lost faith that CDC director Dr. Robert Redfield, a Trump appointee who’d been at the agency only two years, would, or could, hold the line on science. One division leader refused to sign what he viewed as an ill-conceived and xenophobic Trump administration order. Redfield ultimately signed it himself.

Now, 10 months into the crisis, many fear the CDC has lost the most important currency of public health: trust, the confidence in experts that persuades people to wear masks for the public good, to refrain from close-packed gatherings, to take a vaccine.

Today, some CDC veterans worry that it could take a generation or longer to regain that trust.

Longtime CDC employees confess that they have lost trust in what their own agency tells the public.

Another dismayed veteran who works with local health officials did something he had never done before. He told them to ignore his own agency’s guidance. The agency reversed the much-criticized recommendation about testing a month later, but the damage was done. After more than a decade at the CDC, the veteran decided to quit.

“It’s just a disappointment,” he said. “People’s reaction now at other agencies, at state and local public health agencies, when the CDC comes out with a recommendation, they are going to ask: ‘Is that the truth? Or is that what you were told to say?’”

The whole article makes for sobering reading. Institutional trust is easy to destroy and very hard to rebuild. The contempt the Trump administration has for science and its undermining of the CDC is undoubtedly the cause of many needless deaths.


  1. sqlrob says

    Many feared that if they left and spoke out, the White House would stop consulting the CDC at all, and would push through even more dangerous policies.

    Has this strategy ever worked?

  2. consciousness razor says

    It’s bizarre that the CDC director is a political appointee, no matter which administration it is. Don’t make it depend on some “bipartisan” monstrosity either, because we know where that bullshit leads. Let experts/professionals in the field decide. The same goes for judges and Supreme Court justices.

  3. tbrandt says

    Has this strategy ever worked?

    I agree that is almost never does, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by Fauci’s effectiveness while remaining a member of the Coronavirus Task Force. He’s walked that fine line of speaking just enough honesty to gain the public’s trust while avoiding getting fired, and then progressively being more outspoken as his public trust and recognition make him increasingly difficult to fire. I thought he should have walked away long ago, but I think he’s done well with his chosen course.

  4. raven says

    The current Trump/GOP strategy since June, 2020 is to do nothing.
    They are now claiming to be pursuing herd immunity, a nonsense non-strategy that is highly unlikely to work.

    Right now, herd immunity by virus spread is a myth.
    1. Estimates are 60-90% infectioned needed.
    The range is so broad because we don’t even know how many infected are needed.
    2. Time to herd immunity is estimated at 3-10 years.
    We don’t even know that either.
    At nearly one year, the USA is at about 10%.

    3. Herd immunity by virus spread may not even by possible.
    The other 4 Coronaviruses in humans show immunity that lasts a year.
    If the same is true of Covid-19, we won’t ever reach…herd immunity by virus spread.
    We don’t know what Covid-19 long term immunity is because it is a new virus.

    The best way to achieve herd immunity is to immunologically mimic pandemic spread by…vaccines.
    This also skips the steps of millions of dead people and more millions of permanently disabled people.

  5. raven says

    How the CDC was subverted by Trump

    A better way to put it is How the CDC was destroyed by Trump.

    When you are government employee, the political heads have all the power and you have none. If Trump wanted to destroy the CDC, then the CDC ended up in ruins.
    The same thing is happening everywhere in the Federal government though.
    Look what happened to the EPA, the DOJ, the State Department, and the Post Office, etc..

  6. jrkrideau says

    I would say that the USA currently has a problem in international trust. The debacle with Boeing has pretty well destroyed any trust in the FAA, and the CDC & FDA response to political pressure has likely destroyed most of the trust that the rest of the world had in US Gov’t institutions.
    Note the FAA problem was not a Trump issue.

    I heard a doctor on CBC yesterday when asked why Canada had just approved a test that hat been in use in the USA for some time say that Health Canada was cautious.

    I do have to admire how PrePublica managed to do a hatchet job on China. Some of their timeline seems, shall we say, interesting. And of course, the US pulling all or almost all of CDC staff out of China may not have facilitated communications.

    Come to think of it, since Trump had declared a trade war why would the Chinese authorities spend a lot of time with a hostile USA when they could be briefing WHO or talking to the Australians and Europeans?

  7. wsierichs says

    I have a good bit of sympathy for the CDC personnel who stayed in the belief/hope that they could mitigate the damage Trump and his Republican sycophants were doing. It’s easy to say’ walk out the door’ (assuming you can afford it) but bureaucrats as a group have some power if they choose to use it. They can slow-walk damaging changes, push back against destruction and try to hold the pieces together in the hopes of being the repair crew when the ravagers are gone. The U.S. Post Office is a good analogy. It’s going to be the veterans who can undo the sabotage, if given a chance. Replacing the old-timers would delay the repairs for years.

    If Trump loses and if Biden really does follow the science (given that he’s owned by big corporations and wealthy people, I don’t expect anything beyond a few surface changes, but one can hope), then these are the people who will be positioned to restore integrity. If Trump wins, then that changes things and probably the best course is to walk away and cut loose about the sabotage of public health.

    But if Trump is out, what is the alternative: Rebuild everything from the ground up? Or rely on institutional memory to speed up the recovery? I think the latter is the better choice. I hope for everyone’s sake that my optimism is valid and not wishful thinking.

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