The rift between the White House and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has spilled out into the open as one of the nation’s top public health agencies finds itself on the margins of the response to a once-in-a-generation pandemic.
In an administration often beset by infighting, the CDC has been a consistent target of criticism from White House officials privately frustrated by its initial handling of testing and its inability to provide granular, up-to-date data to guide the country’s response.
White House trade adviser Peter Navarro took the fight public on Sunday, saying the CDC had “let the country down” with its early testing woes. The comments were the sharpest public criticism of the agency to date from a member of the administration.
President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump slams Fox after hydroxychloroquine warning: ‘Looking for a new outlet’ Trump threatens permanent freeze on WHO funding without ‘major’ reforms within 30 days Schumer: Trump’s statements on hydroxychloroquine ‘is reckless, reckless, reckless’ MORE and other officials on Monday sought to tamp down the appearance of any discord between the CDC and the rest of the administration. Some defended the CDC’s involvement in the pandemic response and portrayed Navarro’s comments as either out of line or out of context.
Trump praised the CDC for its work before deferring to Vice President Pence, who told reporters that he believed Navarro was specifically criticizing the “arcane testing system” that existed in the early stages of the pandemic. Pence noted the private sector has since gotten involved and the country has significantly increased its testing capacity, recently surpassing 11 million total tests performed.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, who oversees the CDC, called Navarro’s comments “inaccurate and inappropriate.”
“The CDC had one error, which was in scaling up the manufacturing of the test that they had developed,” Azar said. “There was a contamination that didn’t affect the accuracy of the test, just led to inconclusive results. They fixed that within weeks and got it out.”
But former administration officials and public health experts say the damage has already been done to the CDC’s credibility. They also said a series of missteps early in the pandemic that included the testing problems and the declining visibility of the agency as a leading voice in the response have undercut the CDC.
Scott Gottlieb, a former head of the Food and Drug Administration and informal adviser to the Trump administration on the pandemic, wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that the CDC “hasn’t been filling its traditional role of promptly publishing medical findings that may help doctors care for patients.”
He added that the agency “must be elevated in the COVID fight, not marginalized.”
A CDC spokesperson cited thousands of individual responses to media inquiries, more than 1 billion hits on the CDC website and coordination with state and local health leaders as evidence of its engagement.
“To allude that we’re sort of taking a backseat to this response just because we haven’t had such a forward facing presence with the news media really does disservice to what we have actually done as far as leading the public health response to this,” the spokesperson said.
CDC Director Robert Redfield is in touch with the White House daily, the spokesperson said.
Yet Redfield has been featured scarcely in the White House’s public messaging campaign compared to Anthony FauciAnthony FauciOvernight Health Care: Trump says he’s been taking hydroxychloroquine despite safety concerns | US coronavirus death toll tops 90,000 | Moderna reports ‘positive’ results from early data on coronavirus vaccine Trump’s coronavirus vaccine czar to divest millions of dollars in stock options US coronavirus death toll tops 90,000 MORE, Deborah Birx or Surgeon General Jerome Adams. The agency held regular press briefings in the early stages of the outbreak, but has since stopped.
Birx and Redfield went back and forth last week over concerns that the CDC’s system for gathering and reporting data on the virus was “antiquated.” A CDC spokesperson said the two were in agreement on the need to improve the system, but the episode reflects the frustrations of some at the White House with the agency’s approach.
The early testing mishap was one of several damaging episodes for the CDC.
The agency was cast in a harsh light following a visit from Trump to CDC headquarters in March. The president toured the facility wearing a red “Keep America Great” hat and declared “anybody that wants a test can get a test.”
Redfield did not push back on the assertion at the time, instead showering Trump with praise.
In April, after Redfield told The Washington Post that he feared a second wave of coronavirus could be more problematic because it would coincide with flu season, the president brought him to the briefing room podium to walk back his comments. Redfield confirmed the news outlet had quoted him correctly while Trump went on to claim the virus “may not come back at all.”
The White House was reportedly involved in burying detailed guidance from the agency that would have given restaurants, bars and other businesses a road map to reopening once states loosened restrictions meant to slow the spread of the virus.
When the guidelines were released last week, they totaled six pages and only contained broad recommendations such as planning for if an employee gets sick or intensifying cleaning products. Experts viewed it as a sign of political influence as Trump pushed for the economy to reopen quickly.
Redfield testified before a Senate panel last week that the country needed to “rebuild our nation’s public health infrastructure, public health laboratory resilience and our nation’s public health workforce.” He urged that “now is the time to put it in place for the generations to come,” but Redfield’s own future at the agency has become the subject of speculation.
Donald McNeil Jr., who has covered the pandemic for The New York Times, told CNN in an interview that the CDC “is a great agency, but it’s incompetently led, and I think Dr. Redfield should resign.”
Fox News host Laura IngrahamLaura Anne IngrahamTrump says he’s been taking hydroxychloroquine despite safety concerns Legal challenges to stay-at-home orders gain momentum Trump attacks point to Pennsylvania’s critical role in reelection bid MORE tweeted her agreement, citing Redfield’s performance at a Senate hearing.
Officials familiar with the matter say Redfield lacks White House allies but cautioned that it’s unlikely he will resign or be pushed out in the immediate future. Still, they worried about the long-term damage the pandemic response could do to the CDC’s reputation.
“I always turn to CDC guidance on any major public health issue, and I don’t anymore with COVID,” said Lawrence Gostin, a professor of public health at Georgetown University. “CDC is just not a player right now. I’ve never seen that before.”