Former communications staffers in the Department of Health and Human Services from the Bush and Obama administrations are sounding off about reported interference from their successors in the Trump administration, calling allegations they sought to review and change COVID-19 data “unconscionable” and “extremely unusual.”
According to reports from Politico and The New York Times, there have been efforts to review and alter the department’s COVID-19 reports for scientists, medical professionals and the public since former Trump campaign aide Michael Caputo became the top spokesperson for HHS in April. Communications officials within the department attempted to align the reports with statements from President Donald Trump, including claims that the pandemic has been overstated, according to Politico. The CDC public morbidity reports are so critical to understanding the spread of the disease, one health official described them to The Times as the “holiest of the holy.”
After accusing government scientists of “sedition” and warning of post-election left-wing violence in a Facebook video last weekend, Caputo began a 60-day leave of absence on Wednesday. Ryan Murphy is serving as the department’s acting assistant secretary for public affairs in his absence.
Caputo could not be reached for comment. HHS officials did not respond to inquiries seeking comment.
Former HHS communications officials are outraged at the reports. Leslie Dach, who served as a senior counselor for HHS from 2014 to 2016, says that the meddling is “unconscionable” and would not have happened in the Obama administration.
“Anybody working at HHS knows what the scientific community knows, which is that these particular reports are wholly within the domain of the scientists and not a press release to be negotiated with a main office,” says Dach. “This is blatant political interference. There is no gray here at all. You don’t renegotiate a bible when you teach it.”
A former leading public affairs official at HHS who did not want to be named says the actions of the current comms team should be “deeply troubling” to Americans.
“It is important that the scientists who work with the federal government are telling other experts in the field about what they are seeing and that view is not tampered in any way by politics or messaging,” the spokesperson says.
In infectious disease response and crisis situations, what the HHS comms team would normally do, without direct interference, includes an “appropriate and natural” amount of feedback, the source explains.
The office of the assistant secretary would ensure scientific documents “are using language that regular people would understand if you are communicating to a broader audience, or not using language that is widely understood or acceptable in a specific community of experts but has a different meaning to a lay community and could be troubling or confusing for lay people,” the source says.
The director of the CDC would also give the HHS comms team a preview of information before it is made public.
“There is a process for making sure you are not blind-sided by information or data,” says the source. “That part is appropriate, because you want to make sure the HHS secretary knows what is happening and can answer questions and flag that for the White House and make sure the president is appropriately briefed. So there is a normal process for vetting information as it is being produced in a crisis situation.”
The stories from Politico and the Times come as Trump faces daunting polling numbers in his re-election campaign against former Vice President Joe Biden and widespread criticism for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Only 35% of people surveyed in an ABC News/Ipsos poll released this week approved of Trump’s handling of the crisis.
In taped interviews with journalist Bob Woodward for his upcoming book “Rage,” Trump can be heard explaining the severity of the virus at a time when he was downplaying it to the public. The president has since said that he was trying to avoid causing a panic.
One leading communications ethics expert reacted with disbelief to the reports, as well as annoyance that the interference could cast a poor light on PR professionals.
“They did not revise the CDC reports because there were mistakes; they revised them because they thought they were not favorable to Trump,” says Tina McCorkindale, president and CEO of the Institute for Public Relations. “That is the egregious part.”
During his time serving as deputy assistant secretary for public affairs for HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson in President George W. Bush’s administration, Tony Jewell says the main issues were Anthrax, 9/11, SARS and a flu vaccine shortage. He recalls a collaborative process between the department and the West Wing.
“With [Thompson] and the White House, it was all very collaborative to find solutions to various difficult situations,” says Jewell. “Even if people did not see eye-to-eye, it was collaborative under Thompson. President Bush was the same way, by and large.”
The way the Trump administration is handling the COVID-19 pandemic and the reopening of the economy is telling Americans that the White House is ignoring science and putting politics ahead of the country’s well-being, contends Dach.
“That means that not only is there no confidence in what they are saying, but they are purposefully demeaning the confidence people have in the true scientists and public health professionals who are saying wear a mask and socially distance,” he says. “The result is that they undermine people’s trust in the people they need to trust.”
Dach adds that normally during a crisis, Americans trust the Food and Drug Administration on whether it’s safe to take a treatment and rely on the CDC’s guidance for information about how to keep safe.
“Now, because the president and his folks have purposefully undermined that trust, America has no one left to trust,” says Dach.
The core comms tenet for any emergency is to be honest with people. The severity of a situation should never be downplayed by communicators, McCorkindale says. Or as Dach puts it, “Tell them what you know, what you don’t know, what is going to change and keep the politics out of it.”
Ultimately, whether the U.S. turns the corner from this virus will come down to the approval of a vaccine and its acceptance by the public, notes one former HHS comms official, and meddling could stall that process.
“Political interference in a scientific and medical process will hurt those adoption rates which will slow down the comeback from the pandemic,” he says. “This has a major downstream effect on people’s confidence in the information they are getting from the federal government. That is going to be to this administration’s detriment.”
Any interference with scientific reports is bound to have another negative effect: hurting the morale of scientists and officials at the CDC and other teams within the department, the former spokesperson says.
“This threatens the overall strength of the agency as a whole,” the source says.