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House Democrats seek CDC, HHS documents on Trump administration Covid response

Rep. Clyburn said the documents show political motives at play in health agency public information disclosures.
Image: U.S. House Majority Whip Clyburn speaks to reporters in the U.S. Capitol in Washington
House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., speaks to reporters in the Capitol on Dec. 8, 2020.Erin Scott / Reuters

WASHINGTON — The Democratic chairman of a House subcommittee issued subpoenas on Monday to compel Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Centers for Disease Control Director Dr. Robert Redfield to produce documents related to the agencies' coronavirus response.

Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., who is running a special committee created to investigate the government response to the coronavirus, is seeking details about what he says was HHS officials efforts to “interfere” at the CDC, claiming the actions were “far more extensive and dangerous than previously known.”

Clyburn alleges in a letter sent with the subpoenas that beginning in May and stretching over a period of four months, Trump administration political appointees attempted to alter or block at least 13 scientific reports related to the virus. The virus, which began to take hold in the U.S. in March, was continuing to spread across the country in May.

“Top political officials at HHS and CDC not only tolerated these efforts, but in some cases aided them,” Clyburn says in the letter to Redfield and Azar. Clyburn gave the pair a deadline of Dec. 30 to produce the additional documents, which he said he has been requesting since September.

An HHS spokesperson said the administration has provided more than 14,000 pages of documents and has been “extremely cooperative” with the subcommittee.

Previous testimony from the editor of the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report showed there “was no political interference,” the official said.

Rep. Steve Scalise, the top Republican on the coronavirus select committee, said the subpoenas are “just for show," noting that they expire in January when a new Congress is convened.

“Issuing midnight subpoenas that turn into pumpkins in less than two weeks will not speed up production of the tens of thousands of documents HHS has already produced,” Scalise, R-La., said in a statement. “Even though witness testimony has already slammed shut the notion of any political interference in CDC scientific reports, Democrats continue to search for imaginary evidence of improper political influence,” he said.

Clyburn said he is trying to determine who is responsible for the efforts to interfere with scientific reports and whether the intention was to further a “herd immunity” strategy or to provide political cover for the president.

The documents, according to Clyburn's letter, also show that HHS officials attempted to “muzzle CDC scientists by retaliating against career employees who provided truthful information to the public” and targeted CDC staff with what one employee described as a “pattern of hostile and threatening behavior.”

At issue are a number of reports relating to the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report and other scientific publications intended to inform the public. Another allegation of improper interference involved the controversial drug Hydroxychloroquine, which Trump had been touting as a cure for coronavirus. It later proved ineffective in treating Covid-19 and potentially harmful for some patients with heart issues.

The efforts appeared to be aimed at helping Trump, Clyburn said.

It’s not the first time Redfield, who has been director since March 2018, has been accused of allowing politics to influence the agency. In August, the CDC modified testing guidelines to no longer encourage asymptomatic people to get tested, sparking a strong backlash from top scientists.