NEW YORK — The Trump White House has installed two political operatives at the nation’s top public health agency to try to control the information it releases about the Coronavirus pandemic as the administration seeks to paint a positive outlook, sometimes at odds with the scientific evidence.
The two appointees assigned to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Atlanta headquarters in June have no public health background. They have been tasked with keeping an eye on Dr. Robert Redfield, the agency director, as well as scientists, according to a half-dozen CDC and administration officials who spoke to The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal government affairs.
The appointments were part of a push to get more “politicals” into the CDC to help control messaging after a handful of leaks were “upsetting the apple cart,” said an administration official.
When the two appointees showed up in Atlanta, their roles were a mystery to senior CDC staff, the people said. They had not even been assigned offices. Eventually one, Nina Witkofsky, became acting chief of staff, an influential role as Redfield’s right hand. The other, her deputy Trey Moeller, began sitting in on scientific meetings, the sources said.
It’s not clear to what extent the two appointees have affected the agency’s work, according to interviews with multiple CDC officials. But congressional investigators are examining that very question after evidence has mounted of political interference in CDC scientific publications, guidance documents and web postings.
The White House declined to comment. A CDC spokesperson confirmed that Witkofsky and Moeller were working at the agency reporting to Redfield, but did not comment further.
Moeller said in an email to The AP, “I work for Dr. Redfield who is 100% committed to the science and the thousands of incredibly dedicated employees at the CDC.”
During previous pandemics such as Ebola, the CDC was the public face of the US response, offering scientifically driven advice. The agency played the same role at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, but stumbled in February when a test for the virus sent to the states proved flawed. Then, in late February, a top CDC infectious disease expert, Dr. Nancy Messonnier, upset the administration by speaking frankly at a news conference about the dangers of the virus when the president was downplaying it.
Within weeks, the agency was pushed offstage.
Still, CDC persisted in assembling science-based information that conflicted with the White House narrative. In May, a series of leaked emails and scientific documents obtained by The AP detailed how the White House had buried CDC’s detailed guidelines for communities reopening during a still-surging pandemic. The resulting news stories angered the administration, and sparked renewed efforts to exert control over CDC, according to current and former officials.