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Trump officials muzzled CDC on church covid guidance, emails confirm

The documents offer new details about how the White House delivered on the priorities of religious communities that were key to the president’s base.

St. Peter Claver Church in St. Paul, Minn., on April 17 during its first in-person Easter Sunday service since the pandemic began. (Giovanna Dell'orto/AP)
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Trump White House officials in May 2020 removed public health advice urging churches to consider virtual religious services as the coronavirus spread, delivering a messaging change sought by the president’s supporters, according to emails from former top officials released by a House panel on Friday.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sent its planned public health guidance for religious communities to the White House on May 21, 2020, seeking approval to publish it. The agency had days earlier released reports saying that the virus had killed three and infected dozens at church events in Arkansas and infected 87 percent of attendees at a choir practice in Washington state, and health experts had warned that houses of worship had become hot spots for virus transmission.

But Trump officials wrote that they were frustrated by “problematic” advice the CDC had already posted, such as recommendations that houses of worship consider conducting virtual or drive-in religious services, according to emails released Friday by the House select subcommittee on the coronavirus crisis.

“This removes all the tele-church suggestions, though personally I will say that if I was old and vulnerable (I do feel old and vulnerable), drive through services would sound welcome,” May Davis Mailman, a White House lawyer, wrote to colleagues on May 21, attaching her own scrubbed version of the CDC’s guidance to her email.

The guidance subsequently published by the CDC did not include any recommendations about offering virtual or drive-in options for religious services, clergy visits, youth group meetings and other traditionally in-person gatherings. Mailman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Trump administration’s efforts to alter the CDC’s guidance for religious groups have been reported before, but the newly released emails offer fresh details about the White House’s efforts to deliver on a priority for conservative religious groups that were key to President Donald Trump’s base. While many religious organizations abided by public health orders to limit mass gatherings in early 2020, quickly converting to virtual services, multiple white Evangelical leaders and others fought the efforts and appealed to the White House for assistance, with some churches taking challenges to the Supreme Court.

The emails show that officials such as Kellyanne Conway, who served as a top adviser to Trump, and Paul Ray, then-administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, also expressed frustration the CDC planned to broaden its guidance and add new recommendations.

“I have proposed several passages for deletion,” Ray wrote to colleagues, saying he believed that some CDC recommendations “raise religious liberty concerns” and proposing the agency should be allowed to publish only “contingent on striking the offensive passages.” In response, Conway thanked Ray for “holding firm against this newest round of mission creep” and solicited edits from other colleagues. The emails released by the House panel do not specify which passages that Ray, Conway and the other Trump officials sought to remove.

In a statement, Ray defended his efforts to alter the CDC guidance.

“Each faith tradition — not the federal government — is best situated to understand the demands of its own beliefs and therefore to choose, among the multiple effective means of preventing the virus’s spread, those means that best comport with its beliefs,” Ray wrote. “The edits proposed to this document were designed to keep Americans safe while respecting their right to worship as they believe they should.”

Conway did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The behind-the-scenes frustrations over the CDC’s guidance for religious groups also spilled into White House briefings, as Trump urged states on May 22 to allow houses of worship to open immediately, as his advisers continued to exert pressure on the CDC’s guidance. The public health agency subsequently removed its warnings that singing in church choirs could spread the virus, despite its earlier findings.

CDC officials privately lamented the changes and worried the watered-down guidance would lead to new infections and possibly deaths, according to emails previously released by the panel.

“I must admit, as someone who has been speaking with churches and pastors on this (and as someone who goes to church), I am not sure [I] see a public health reason to take down and replace” the original guidance, Jay Butler, a senior CDC official, wrote to colleagues on May 23, 2020. “This is 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,” he added in a follow-up email the next day.

In an interview last year, Butler told the House panel that he stood by his concerns. Butler declined to comment on Friday.

House Democrats have spent months investigating reports of Trump officials interfering with the CDC and other health agencies in the earliest months of the coronavirus response. The House panel released the new documents ahead of a hearing Friday in which the head of the Government Accountability Office, an independent, nonpartisan agency, testified on whether the reported political interference hindered health agencies’ efforts to respond to the pandemic.

House Democrats also released a portion of an interview with Robert Redfield, the former CDC director, who told the panel that the Trump administration refused to approve his agency’s requests to do briefings on the pandemic for six months, with a few exceptions, after Nancy Messonnier, who was then a senior CDC official, on Feb. 25, 2020, warned that the virus’s spread in the United States was inevitable. The warning angered Trump, who had been issuing a far more optimistic message, and sparked friction with the White House and the Department of Health and Human Services, which moved to sideline the agency.

“This is one of my great disappointments … they would not clear our briefings,” Redfield told the panel, arguing that the CDC’s lack of communication hampered public trust in the agency.

Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), the House majority whip who chairs the panel, said in a statement that the new documents illustrated a “disturbing” pattern.

“As today’s new evidence also makes clear, Trump White House officials worked under the direction of the former president to purposefully undercut public health officials’ recommendations and muzzle their ability to communicate clearly to the American public,” Clyburn said.

House Republicans countered that the panel had failed to probe questions about scientific integrity during the Biden administration, pointing to a GOP-led investigation that found CDC officials last year shared draft documents and solicited guidance from teachers’ unions before issuing recommendations on whether to reopen schools. A CDC official previously told the panel that the extent of communication between the agency and teachers’ unions was “uncommon.”

“This is political interference with the science, plain and simple,” Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), the House minority whip, said at Friday’s hearing.

Some former health officials have also alleged that the Biden administration has sidelined public health experts, such as ignoring vaccine experts when crafting booster-shot recommendations last year.

Kyle McGowan, who served as the CDC’s chief of staff under Redfield, faulted Trump White House officials for overriding the agency’s guidance, and urged the Biden administration to allow the CDC to lead regular briefings again. The agency on Tuesday held a briefing on the prevalence of Americans infected with coronavirus, the first of what the agency hopes will be weekly briefings, according to CDC officials.

“If we want the CDC to communicate the reasoning behind their guidance they need to be able to talk directly to the press and the American people,” McGowan said.

The House panel on Friday also heard testimony from Gene L. Dodaro, who leads the GAO, which last week released a report concluding that health agencies need stronger protections against political interference.

“To maintain public trust and credibility, these agencies need to ensure that these decisions are evidence-based and free from political interference,” the GAO’s report concluded.

Lena H. Sun and Sarah Pulliam Bailey contributed to this report.

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