Emails detail Trump administration’s fight with own medical experts over COVID advice

The Trump Administration ignored the advice of medical advisors that were tasked with helping shape the United States’ COVID-19 response, according to emails released Dec. 17 by the Congressional Select Subcommittee investigating the United States’ response to the coronavirus pandemic.

That report’s findings, highlighted by Slate earlier this week, included a series of concerns from Dr. Deborah Birx, the former White House COVID coordinator, and Dr. Jay Butler, a senior Centers for Disease Control and Prevention official. Both gave interviews to the subcommittee.

In one series of emails, Birx lays out her objections to an Aug. 2020 White House meeting with what she characterized as a “fringe group” of people who advocated for a “herd immunity” strategy in combating COVID-19, including then-White House Special Advisor, Dr. Scott Atlas.

In response to a White House request that she comment on Trump’s prepared remarks for the round table, Birx responds with “Best if this proceeds without my presence.”


She then sent an email directly to Marc Short, chief of staff to Vice-President Mike Pence, who had been tasked with leading a coronavirus task force. In her email to Short, she calls the roundtable members part of a “fringe group without grounding in epidemics, public health or on the ground common sense experience” and says that without masks and social distancing, “we end up with twice as many deaths” as the estimated 500,000 expected by the time vaccines would be available.

Birx also declines to participate in the round table, writing, “I am happy to go out of town or whatever gives the [White House] cover.”

She forwarded this email to Dr. Anthony Fauci, then-CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield, and then-Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn with a single line: “I just can’t.”

The documents released by the committee also detail the CDC’s scramble to balance its advice with Trump’s pronouncements.

In a series of emails between Butler, the senior CDC official who served as Incident Manager of the agency’s coronavirus response, and CDC staff, the organization recounts disagreements it had with the Trump administration around guidance for religious gatherings.

According to staff, the CDC was instructed to remove language around religious gatherings from its community mitigation guidance written in April 2020.

One month later, Trump announced to the press that the CDC would be publishing guidance for faith-based gatherings, triggering a scramble by the organization to create a new document that was “cleared” for publication by the White House but which had omissions, according to Butler.

“The version we had to post tonight does not have answers to a number of the questions that we have been asked by the faith community and lacks a number of recommendations for other settings to support reopening as safely as possible,” wrote Butler.


Butler said the version approved by the White House was missing a recommendation to reduce lines, to consider more services to reduce crowding, suspension of choir and musical ensembles, references to considering virtual services, and “all references to face coverings.”

The back-and-forth between the White House and the CDC largely played out in front of cameras, as Trump, during a news conference following a visit to a Ford Motor Co. plant in May 2020, said he had discussed the issue of reopening churches with CDC leadership.

“I said ‘You better put it out.’ And they’re doing it,” Trump said at the event. “And they’re going to be issuing something today or tomorrow on churches. We got to get our churches open.”

President Donald Trump on May 22 announced that churches and other houses of worship were deemed “essential” and called on governors nationwide to let them reopen, though some areas remained under lockdown. During a news conference, Trump threatened to “override” governors who defied him.

“Governors need to do the right thing and allow these very important essential places of faith to open right now — for this weekend,” Trump said at the news conference from the White House. Asked what authority Trump might have to supersede governors, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany at the time said she wouldn’t answer a theoretical question.

Following Trump’s announcement, the CDC then released new guidelines for communities of faith on how to safely reopen, including recommendations to limit the size of gatherings and consider holding services outdoors or in large, well-ventilated areas.

In his email sent to a fellow staff member, Butler called the earlier advice to religious organizations created by the CDC as “a very good public health document.” Portions of the email are redacted, but Butler refers to replacing the CDC’s statement with the White House’s as “not good public health.”

“I am very troubled on this Sunday morning that there will be people who will get sick and perhaps die because of what we were forced to do. Our team has done the good work, only to have it compromised,” Butler wrote.

Christin Hakim

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