NEW YORK (AP) -- The Trump White House has installed two political operatives at the nation's top public health agency to try to control the information it releases about the coronavirus pandemic as the administration seeks to paint a positive outlook, sometimes at odds with the scientific evidence.
The two appointees assigned to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Atlanta headquarters in June have no public health background. They have instead been tasked with keeping an eye on Dr. Robert Redfield, the agency director, as well as scientists, according to a half-dozen CDC and administration officials who spoke to The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal government affairs.
The appointments were part of a push to get more “politicals” into the CDC to help control messaging after a handful of leaks were “upsetting the apple cart,” said an administration official.
When the two appointees showed up in Atlanta, their roles were a mystery to senior CDC staff, the people said. They had not even been assigned offices. Eventually one, Nina Witkofsky, became acting chief of staff, an influential role as Redfield's right hand. The other, her deputy Chester “Trey” Moeller, also began sitting in on scientific meetings, the sources said.
It's not clear to what extent the two appointees have affected the agency's work, according to interviews with multiple CDC officials. But congressional investigators are examining that very question after evidence has mounted of political interference in CDC scientific publications, guidance documents and web postings.
The White House declined to comment. A CDC spokesperson confirmed that Witkofsky and Moeller were working at the agency reporting to Redfield, but did not comment further.
Moeller said in an email to The AP, “I work for Dr. Redfield who is 100% committed to the science and the thousands of incredibly dedicated employees at the CDC working on behalf of the American people.”
During previous pandemics such as Ebola or SARS, the CDC was the public face of the U.S. response, offering scientifically driven advice to doctors and patients alike. The agency played the same role at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, but stumbled in February when a test for the virus sent to states proved to be flawed. Then, in late February, a top CDC infectious disease expert, Dr. Nancy Messonnier, upset the administration by speaking frankly at a news conference about the dangers of the virus when the president was still downplaying it.
Within weeks, the agency was pushed offstage as President Donald Trump and other administration officials, during daily news briefings, became the main sources of information about the U.S. epidemic and the attempts to control it.
Still, CDC persisted in assembling science-based information that conflicted with the White House narrative. In May, a series of leaked emails and scientific documents obtained by The AP detailed how the White House had buried CDC's detailed guidelines for communities reopening during a still-surging pandemic. The emails revealed that the administration was vetting CDC's science through the Office of Management and Budget, rather than relying on its medical experts on the White House coronavirus task force. The resulting news stories of the shelving of the documents angered the administration, and sparked renewed efforts to exert control over CDC, according to current and former officials.
On a Monday in June, the new faces arrived at CDC's Atlanta offices. One was Witkofsky, who according to federal election records had a minor role in Trump's presidential campaign.
Witkofsky was installed initially as a senior adviser to Redfield. In a few weeks, she would take over as the agency's acting chief of staff and gradually become the person at CDC headquarters who has the most daily interactions with him, the CDC officials said.
Senior CDC staff found out about the appointments the week before they happened, according to a CDC official who also spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal agency affairs. They had no office, and no one knew their role.
"They just showed up on a Monday,” the official said.
Presidential administrations appoint CDC directors. And there's nothing new about a White House seeking a better handle on information released by the CDC, said Glen Nowak, a University of Georgia professor who ran the agency's media relations for more than a dozen years. But past administrations placed overtly political appointees at HHS in Washington; the Trump administration has taken it to a new level by placing other people in CDC's Atlanta headquarters, Nowak said.
Before Witkofsky and Moeller, the Trump administration had appointed others at CDC in Atlanta who were viewed by staff with some suspicion. But none of the predecessors' roles was so clearly to report internal agency business up to Washington, according to officials who talked to The AP.
And Witkofsky seemed a particularly strange fit for the nation's top public health agency. She studied finance and business administration in college and graduate school, and at one point worked as a publicist and talent booker for Turner Broadcasting's Cartoon Network. Her political work included being an events director during the George W. Bush 2000 presidential campaign. As a State Department official, she developed an international engagement program for U.S. athletes and coaches.
Her lack of familiarity with the CDC, and how it worked, quickly became clear in meetings, according to multiple agency officials. At one, Witkofsky expressed surprise that the CDC had a supporting foundation, one agency official recalled.
Though Witkofsky was largely unknown, she had met a few CDC workers months earlier. In March, on behalf of the administration, she had worked communications when Trump visited a CDC lab. Clad in a red “Keep America Great” baseball cap, Trump had praised the CDC and assured the public “we're prepared for anything.” Trump asserted that he has a terrific grasp of public health. “Maybe I have a natural ability,” he boasted.
In her new role, Witkofsky communicated regularly with Michael Caputo, chief of communications for CDC's parent agency, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, two administration officials said. At the time Caputo's office was attempting to gain control over the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, or MMWR, a CDC scientific weekly known for publishing authoritative and unvarnished information about disease-fighting efforts, according to multiple accounts.
Witkofsky's deputy, Moeller, who began work on the same day, is a longtime GOP supporter who worked on the Bush-Cheney presidential campaign in 2004. The most recent post on his Facebook page was a “Make America Great Again” Trump campaign banner.
They wanted him to sit in meetings and "listen to scientists,” said a former CDC official.
Witkofsky was added to CDC's website when she became acting chief of staff, but Moeller's name appears nowhere on either the HHS or CDC sites.
An HHS spokesperson said both Witkofsky and Moeller report to Redfield but refused to comment further on personnel matters.
Some CDC officials noted that a pandemic like this involves many parts of the government, and the political people sent to Atlanta have at times helped speed the flow of information coming to the agency from Washington.
But there has been a huge downside, public health experts and former CDC staffers say: damage to the once-venerated CDC.
The agency's guidance for how to reduce viral infections has been largely ignored by the Trump White House, where officials have refused to wear masks and continued to hold large gatherings with few protective measures.
Witkofsky and Moeller are among officials the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis is seeking to interview as part of a probe it launched in mid-September into allegations the Trump administration blocked the CDC from publishing accurate scientific reports during the pandemic.
The subcommittee's investigators want to know more about Witkofsky and Moeller's roles in reported attempts by Caputo and administration officials to gain editorial control over the MMWR and other CDC publications. The investigators are also interested in whether Witkofsky and Moeller were involved in making changes to CDC COVID-19 guidance for schools, as well as agency information that has been changed multiple times on how the virus spreads through the air.
Caputo took a leave of absence from HHS after he described government scientists as the “resistance” against Trump in a video posted online. In an HHS podcast, Caputo accused Democrats in the government, along with the news media, of not wanting a vaccine so as to punish the president. After the incidents gained news coverage, one of Caputo's top advisers, Dr. Paul Alexander, resigned.
The apparent meddling and political pressure from the Trump White House, and from HHS, have caused even scientific experts to question some CDC decisions. And they have made an already trying job of responding to the worst pandemic in a century even harder, according to multiple CDC officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
“I don't trust the (political appointees) that they've dropped into the CDC,” said Dr. Rick Bright, a federal vaccine expert who filed a whistleblower complaint alleging he was reassigned to a lesser job because he resisted political pressure to allow widespread use of hydroxychloroquine, a malaria drug pushed by Trump as a COVID-19 treatment. Bright said CDC scientists should be the face of the federal response, as has been the tradition, and the absence of their counsel to the public has contributed to confusion.
“That is absolutely frightening,” he said. “(It) leads to the mixed signals to the public. And I think that is increasing the magnitude and duration of this entire pandemic.”
Bright resigned last week from his post at the National Institutes of Health, saying his superiors had ignored a national coronavirus testing strategy he'd developed.
All of the added political pressure is contributing to a high burnout rate for CDC scientists working on the coronavirus response. One agency official said it “creates distractions from the real threat” of the virus, and extra work.
From March through September, there has been a constantly changing organizational structure and leadership in CDC's COVID response, according to internal organizational charts obtained by The AP.
In a chart from March, Messonnier was listed as a “Senior Official,” one step below the director, Redfield. But in the following chart, posted weeks after the press conference that angered the White House, her name disappeared completely from the top ranks. A new box had appeared on next to Redfield's name: the White House Coronavirus Task Force led by Vice President Mike Pence.
In previous pandemics and outbreaks like Ebola that lasted for months or years, records and interviews show that the CDC's leadership remained largely stable to create a consistency that staff could rely upon.
The appearance of political interference and disarray are hurting the agency's standing, experts say.
“There's a cumulative effect. And each one of them is doing its own damage to the agency's credibility,” Nowak said.