The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s election challenges distracted from covid response, White House adviser told colleagues

Emails obtained by House panel detail priorities as virus surged last year

The White House on May 20, 2020. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

White House officials prioritized President Donald Trump’s attempt to challenge the election over the pandemic response last winter, according to emails obtained by the House select subcommittee probing the government’s coronavirus response and shared with The Washington Post.

Steven Hatfill, a virologist who advised White House trade director Peter Navarro and said he was intimately involved in the pandemic response, repeatedly described in the emails how “election stuff” took precedence over coronavirus, even as the outbreak surged to more than 250,000 new coronavirus cases per day in January.

“Now with the elections so close, COVID is taking a back-seat, yet the disease is rearing it[s] ugly head again,” Hatfill wrote to an outside colleague in October 2020. Following the election, which was disputed by Trump, Hatfill wrote in another email that he personally “shifted over to the election fraud investigation in November.”

In other emails obtained by the subcommittee, Hatfill further detailed his role in the White House’s election challenges, including traveling to Arizona in the wake of that state’s close election, passing along a “Plan B for Trump Legal Fight” and sharing debunked rumors of Joe Biden’s supposed family ties with a voting machine company.

Asked in a Jan. 5, 2021, email by a George Washington University colleague why he was not “fixing the virus,” Hatfill blamed the election dispute, writing, “Because the election thing got out of control. I go where my team goes,” citing his own efforts to help challenge the outcome of the election in Nevada.

The emails obtained by the subcommittee also show Hatfill directly interacting with senior officials at the White House, Department of Health and Human Services, and Food and Drug Administration, in addition to representing the administration in dealings with outside health-care companies.

“The President has been grossly misadvised by the COVID Task Force on the proper pandemic response to COVID-19,” Hatfill wrote in a Sept. 22, 2020, letter to then-Chief of Staff Mark Meadows. Hatfill listed alternate recommendations, including proactively administering untested virus treatments like hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malarial drug favored by Trump.

The Democrat-led panel on Thursday issued a subpoena to Hatfill, demanding that he turn over documents that the subcommittee first requested in April and chastising him for minimizing his role in the White House response.

“Dr. Hatfill has refused to provide documents and misleadingly downplayed his involvement in the pandemic response in communications with Select Subcommittee staff,” House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), who chairs the subcommittee, wrote in a memo to colleagues that was shared with The Washington Post.

Clyburn also criticized the Trump administration’s decision to classify Hatfill as an unpaid volunteer, saying that it raised “serious questions” about whether the administration sought to evade transparency and ethics rules.

In a statement, Hatfill defended his involvement in the election challenges, saying it was driven by his unhappiness about federal officials’ handling of the pandemic response.

“From my perspective as a Doctor, I was, and continue to be, frustrated with public health being treated as a political football,” Hatfill wrote in response to questions from The Post. “Moreover, I was disgusted with the destruction of the National Pandemic Plan at the hands of conflicted petty bureaucrats; a plan that focused on early treatment and community outreach, rather than experimental vaccines and panic,” Hatfill added, a reference to his belief that officials wrongly limited access to hydroxychloroquine.

“I was asked to serve in the Executive Office of the President of the United States in a time of extreme crisis. I accepted this call without reservation, and would do so again, regardless of the political affiliation of the Executive Branch,” Hatfill added.

Navarro and a spokeswoman for Trump did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Attempts to reach Meadows were unsuccessful.

By his own public account, Hatfill played a key role in the Trump administration’s pandemic response.

“From 3 February 2020 through the post-inauguration transition period in 2021, I had the task of providing almost daily outside scientific considerations to the Executive Office of the President of the United States. This task entailed thousands of hours of unpaid work,” Hatfill wrote in an article published on his website this year.

In emails to colleagues — sometimes sent through ProtonMail, an encrypted email service used by Hatfill, Navarro and other Trump officials — the virologist elaborated on his duties, including that he worked up to 18 hours per day, stationed at the White House.

“They fly me around sometimes on private jets to sort s--- out. Seeing the good and the bad and what needs to be fixed,” Hatfill wrote in a June 2020 email.

Hatfill issued prescient warnings in February 2020, before the outbreak exploded in the United States, that the government’s “critical mistakes” — like a failed rollout of coronavirus tests devised by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — would doom the early response to the virus. He also repeatedly urged Navarro, a close adviser to Trump, to quickly acquire tests and supplies, and he helped author memos that reached the president.

Trump advisers privately warned of ‘critical mistakes’ as pandemic loomed

But the documents also illustrate how politics came to define Hatfill’s view on the pandemic.

“States favorable to Trump have a lower COVID Case Fatality Rate than the ... states that do not,” Hatfill wrote in a Sept. 19, 2020, email to a White House official, using a slur for the states that were not Trump-friendly. He suggested that the information should be highlighted.

As demand soared for face coverings, Hatfill also dismissed opportunities to purchase N95 or KN95 masks that were available overseas. “Nothing that is not US based,” Hatfill wrote in a March 27, 2020 email.

In his emails, Hatfill repeatedly took aim at Anthony S. Fauci, the government’s top infectious-disease expert, and then-FDA Commissioner Steven Hahn, whom he blamed for opposing the widespread use of anti-malarial drugs.

“I actually lost it and told Fauci he was full of crap a couple weeks ago,” Hatfill wrote in a Sept. 3, 2020 email.

“Two members of the COVID-19 Task Force (Drs, Fauci and Hahn) need to be urgently replaced with a competent multidisciplinary team of doctors and public health experts actually experienced in operational medicine,” Hatfill urged Meadows in a letter about two weeks later. Neither was removed from the task force but both were increasingly sidelined by Trump.

Fauci said he was not aware of Hatfill’s efforts to replace him on the task force. Hahn did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Hatfill, a virologist and former Army biodefense researcher, first attracted national interest after then-Attorney General John Ashcroft named him as a “person of interest” in the 2001 anthrax attacks. Hatfill was subsequently cleared of any wrongdoing and won a $5.85 million settlement from the Justice Department in 2008.

The scientist, listed as an adjunct assistant professor at George Washington University’s medical school, at times marveled at his turn of fortune, including his newfound proximity to Trump.

“ 'Person of Interest’ to WH advisor in 20-years,” Hatfill wrote in a February 2020 email exchange, adding that he “helped draft a memo for big D last night.” “Only in America LOL.”

Coronavirus: What you need to know

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Variants: BA.5 is the most recent omicron subvariant, and it’s quickly become the dominant strain in the U.S. Here’s what to know about it, and why vaccines may only offer limited protection.

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Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. The omicron variant is behind much of the recent spread.

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