A year-end House subcommittee report released Friday detailed scores of ways in which President Donald Trump’s administration impeded the federal government’s response to the COVID-19 crisis, risked millions of lives and wasted taxpayer money.
The 46-page document contains some information that had already been released, as well as new revelations. Taken as a whole, it makes abundantly clear how the Trump administration failed to move fast enough to combat the virus, sometimes in order to avoid “angering” the president, as hundreds of thousands of Americans became sick and died.
Read on for some key findings.
Trump “weakened” CDC testing guidance to dodge the truth of how fast the virus was spreading ahead of the election.
According to the report, documents show that “Trump Administration officials allowed the pandemic response to take a ‘back-seat’ in the fall of 2020” as the nation was gearing up for the 2020 election.
The Trump White House “purposefully weakened the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) testing guidance to reduce the amount of testing being conducted and obscure how rapidly the virus was spreading across the country,” the report said.
Dr. Deborah Birx, the former White House coronavirus response coordinator, told the committee that in August 2020, administration officials changed guidance to say asymptomatic people did not need to be tested for COVID-19 ― contrary to the science. The CDC eventually restored the guidance the following month “over the objections of senior White House officials,” Birx said, according to the report.
Trump did not like the public briefing given by the CDC in February 2020, so the White House blocked the agency from giving others for three months.
Dr. Nancy Messonnier, a former respiratory diseases official for the CDC, “accurately warned the public about the risks posed by the coronavirus” in a Feb. 25, 2020 briefing. Messonnier told the committee, however, that the briefing “angered” Trump, and said she received “upsetting” calls from former CDC Director Robert Redfield and former Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar about it.
Another official told the committee that the CDC wanted to hold a briefing in April 2020 “that would have provided information on the state of the pandemic, a new CDC recommendation to wear cloth face coverings, and new evidence of pediatric cases and deaths from the coronavirus,” but the White House blocked their request.
Reports previously indicated that CDC officials felt “muzzled” by the Trump administration.
One CDC official said he was “haunted” by how the Trump administration altered health guidance for religious services.
The Trump White House wanted to give faith communities guidance that would still let congregations meet in person with minimal disruptions, the report said.
Senior CDC official Dr. Jay Butler told the committee that the published version of the government’s guidance for faith communities in the early months of the pandemic “softened some very important public health recommendations,” including the suggestion to halt choir performances.
“Dr. Butler told the Select Subcommittee that ‘what had been done [by the Trump White House] was not good public health practice,‘” the report said, “and acknowledged that the concerns he had about Americans getting sick and potentially dying because they relied on this watered-down guidance ‘will haunt [him] for some time.’”
Birx refused to participate in a “herd immunity” roundtable discussion but didn’t want to upset the White House.
The committee released evidence that Birx and other medical advisers were alarmed by the Trump White House’s flirtation with a “herd immunity” strategy.
In the fall of 2020, former Trump adviser and neuroradiologist Dr. Scott Atlas led a roundtable with fringe scientists to discuss the tactic. Birx told the committee that the administration was considering encouraging people to get the virus in order to develop antibodies ― an approach that “would have risked the loss of even more American lives unnecessarily,” the report said.
Birx refused to join. In an email, she wrote: “I can’t be part of this with these people who believe in herd immunity ... These are people who believe that all the curves are predetermined and mitigation is irrelevant ― they are a fringe group without grounding in epidemics, public health or on-the-ground common sense experience.”
But she offered to provide PR help: “I am happy to go out of town or whatever gives the WH cover,” Birx wrote in the email.
Dr. Anthony Fauci and National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins aired concerns with the herd immunity strategy in other emails published by the committee. In one such email, Collins pasted a link to a Washington Post story that quoted him condemning the idea.
“My quotes are accurate, but will not be appreciated in the WH,” Collins wrote.
The Trump administration’s pandemic response was plagued by fraud and poor decision-making.
Everyone who lived through the pandemic in the U.S. remembers that key supplies like tests and personal protective equipment were in scarce supply early on. The committee concluded that the Trump administration’s “haphazard and ineffective” strategy “exposed taxpayers to risks of fraud by nefarious actors who sought to profit off of the crisis.”
The government’s emergency loan program for small businesses was also a target for fraudsters. The committee found that 97% of fraud prosecutions related to small business loan program occurred in its first five months, suggesting the Trump White House was not doing nearly enough to implement fraud controls.
In another case, the Trump administration awarded 95% of the funds from one program ― the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act loan program for businesses “critical to maintaining national security” ― to a single business. The report’s authors called the $700 million loan “deeply questionable,” as it went to a financially troubled trucking company. Another pandemic initiative, the Farmers-to-Families Food Box Program, “delivered windfall profits to unqualified food distributors who wasted taxpayer dollars,” the report said.