Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Robert Redfield is on thin ice at the White House, according to a Wednesday report by CNN, with sources telling the network Redfield is personally concerned that he may be out of a job during the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.
On Sunday, White House trade adviser Peter Navarro publicly blasted the CDC for its lengthy delays in developing and rolling out an accurate test for the virus, saying it “let the country down.” According to CNN, at a Tuesday meeting with GOP senators, Donald Trump also blasted the CDC without mentioning Redfield by name, while White House coronavirus task force coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx has also made “clear in recent meetings that she is more than frustrated” with the agency’s protocol for gathering up to date tallies of confirmed cases and deaths. White House sources told the network conversations regarding “what to do” about Redfield have sprung up.
CNN further reported that White House officials claimed that both the CDC and Redfield have been very hard to reach, while Birx and task force chair Vice President Mike Pence have both been much more responsive. Sources also told the network Birx appeared to be leading an initiative on how to update the CDC’s data collection methods, with Redfield missing from meetings.
However, a CDC official told CNN Redfield was still present at White House meetings and is “going about his job [...] his interaction with the White House has not changed.”
According to a separate CNN report, tensions between the White House and the CDC that began with the testing debacle and grew after a senior CDC official contradicted Trump’s narrative in February that everything would be fine have now reached a peak. Redfield’s April comments that a second wave of coronavirus cases may be even more devastating also irked many in the administration, including Trump, who demanded the CDC director issue a new statement. Sources told CNN that the sense at the agency is that the White House is ignoring its scientific advice in favor of a political agenda, such as by withholding the release of detailed CDC reopening guidelines that might have slowed the process of opening up businesses shuttered during the pandemic.
The White House subsequently released a series of vague guidelines that provided much less detail on how businesses and institutions like schools could reopen safely, apparently in the hopes of avoiding the delays necessary to implement comprehensive instructions. The full set wasn’t released until May 19, reportedly in part because the Trump administration believed the original draft targeted churches and demanded that references to faith (such as not sharing Communion vessels) be stripped from the documents. A senior CDC official told CNN that with respect to the stricter guidelines that were temporarily withheld, “no one who is reopening meets the criteria for reopening.”
“If you look at our guidance documents online, they have been watered down a lot,” a CDC official told CNN. “The ones that were written in March say, ‘Go home and stay there,’ and they are very clear. And the ones now say, ‘in consultation with state and local governors, do what they say.’”
“The message we received in previous administrations was, you guys are the scientists,” a separate CDC employee told the network. “That’s not the case this time. If the science that we are offering up contradicts a specific policy goal, then we are the problem.”
The battle over coronavirus statistics has also contributed to bad blood between the White House and the CDC. The Trump administration recently signed a $10.2 million contract with a Pittsburgh IT company, TeleTracking Technologies, to duplicate the coronavirus statistical work already under the CDC’s portfolio. Per the Washington Post, Birx has questioned whether the CDC is inflating the total number of cases and deaths (despite strong indications that, if anything, official metrics are undercounts) and the contract with TeleTracking appears to be a further indication that she does not trust its data.
Separate reporting by Al Jazeera highlighted that some CDC doctors and scientists believe that Redfield has also caved to political demands from the White House. American Public Health Association executive director Dr. Georges Benjamin told Al Jazeera that “Right now, the White House is controlling the message, controlling who says it.”
“They rolled out their more complete guidance last night in the middle of the night when nobody could see it,” Benjamin added. “Normally, they would have pulled together a call with all the state and local health officers and told us it was coming... They didn’t do it, I’m clear, because they weren’t allowed to.”
“This is the kind of thing the CDC has been preparing for,” former CDC environmental health expert Richard Jackson told Al Jazeera. “I expected they would be functional and they weren’t... This latest thing, where the president’s son-in-law goes out and finds a company to figure out how to undercount deaths is appalling.”
Last month, the White House abruptly reassigned Dr. Rick Bright, who was the director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, which develops civilian countermeasures against chemical, nuclear, and radiological threats, bioterrorism, and pandemics. Bright has since said that the Trump administration failed to develop a coherent plan to contain the coronavirus. He has also filed a whistleblower complaint claiming he was ousted for refusing to accelerate the approval of hydroxychloroquine, a medication Trump has touted as a possible “miracle” cure for the coronavirus, for use in the pandemic despite a lack of evidence as to its efficacy and safety concerns.