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The Biden campaign’s false claim a top CDC official was ‘silenced’

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“All the while, anyone who raised an alarm about this — a red flag — was silenced. Look no further than Dr. Nancy Messonnier, a career official at the Centers for Disease Control who was the first to raise the alarm. … Starting the next day, Dr. Messonnier no longer appeared at public briefings of the White House coronavirus task force. The president and the White House sent a clear message to scientists in the government — there would be a price for speaking out and speaking up.”

— Ron Klain, Biden campaign adviser and former Ebola “czar,” in a video released March 21

Former vice president Joe Biden tweeted an informational video on the novel coronavirus that featured Ron Klain, a longtime Biden aide who served as President Barack Obama’s top official overseeing the administration’s response to the Ebola outbreak in 2014. The video was a viral hit — it got more than 4 million views — and it mixed attacks on Trump’s handling of the public health crisis with a pitch for Biden’s proposals.

But Klain’s framing of the Messonnier situation is simply wrong.

The Facts

Messonnier is the director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. On Feb. 25, Messonnier, who is based at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s headquarters in Atlanta, gave a telephone briefing — not on camera — to reporters on the coronavirus outbreak. “It’s not so much a question of if this will happen anymore but rather more a question of exactly when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illness,” she said in a clip that Klain says was the “first to raise the alarm.”

One section of Messonnier’s remarks was especially stark.

“I had a conversation with my family over breakfast this morning, and I told my children that while I didn’t think that they were at risk right now, we as a family need to be preparing for significant disruption of our lives,” Messonnier said. “You should ask your children’s school about their plans for school dismissals or school closures. Ask if there are plans for teleschool. I contacted my local school superintendent this morning with exactly those questions.”

Messonnier’s blunt phrasing affected Wall Street. The Dow Jones industrial average slid nearly 900 points, the second day in a row coronavirus worries impacted the market. Some White House aides responded by offering more optimism. White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow, speaking on CNBC, said: “We have contained this. I won’t say airtight, but pretty close to airtight.”

At the time, more than a month after the first case had been identified in the United States, only 426 people had been tested because of a problem with CDC test kits, far fewer than in other industrialized nations. On Feb. 25, there were 57 documented cases of covid-19 in the United States. (As of March 23, about four weeks later, there are more than 46,000 cases in the United States.)

Various news reports indicate that President Trump, who was returning from a trip to India, was upset about the impact her remarks had on the markets. During his trip, the president claimed the outbreak was “very well under control.”

The New York Times reported:

“The president immediately got on the phone with Alex M. Azar II, his secretary of health and human services. That call scared people, he shouted, referring to Dr. Messonnier’s warnings. Are we at the point that we will have to start closing schools? the president added, alarmed, according to an official who heard about the call.”

The Washington Post reported:

“On Feb. 25, Nancy Messonnier, a senior CDC official, sounded perhaps the most significant public alarm to that point, when she told reporters that the coronavirus was likely to spread within communities in the United States and that disruptions to daily life could be ‘severe.’ Trump called Azar on his way back from a trip to India and complained that Messonnier was scaring the stock markets, according to two senior administration officials.”

In the Biden video, Klain claims there was immediate blowback: “Starting the next day, Dr. Messonnier no longer appeared at public briefings of the White House coronavirus task force. The president and the White House sent a clear message to scientists in the government — there would be a price for speaking out and speaking up.” The video imposes question marks over the heads of the people appearing onstage with Trump on Feb. 26.

But if you look closely, you will see there is a woman standing next to Trump. Who’s that? Anne Schuchat, the CDC’s principal deputy director — and Messonnier’s superior.

Indeed, just a day before, Schuchat had participated in a televised news conference of the coronavirus task force, where her message was similar to what Messonnier said, if not quite as stark: “It’s not so much a question of if this will happen anymore, but rather more a question of exactly when this will happen, and how many people in this country will become infected? And how many of those will develop severe or more complicated disease?”

At the Feb. 26 news conference, Trump announced that Vice President Pence was taking charge of the task force. (Previously, Azar had run it.) From then on, briefings were held at the White House, not the Department of Health and Human Services. Trump headlines each one. One would presume either the director or deputy director would be onstage with the president, not a lower-ranking official.

Meanwhile, far from being silenced, Messonnier kept doing her telephone briefings with reporters — on Feb. 28, Feb. 29, March 3 and March 9. She also appeared in four videos shared on social media, such as this one from March 14.

“It’s fair to say that as the trajectory of the outbreak continues, many people in the United States will at some point in time, either this year or next, be exposed to this virus, and there’s a good chance many will become sick,” Messonnier warned on March 9.

Before Feb. 25, Messonnier had appeared in 13 telebriefings over six weeks, often issuing warnings. “The goal of the measures we have taken to date are to slow the introduction and impact of this disease in the United States but at some point, we are likely to see community spread in the U.S.,” she said on Feb. 12. “This will require the effort of all levels of government, the public health system and our communities as we face these challenges together.”

The Washington Post reported on March 19 that the CDC’s public voice has been sidelined in recent weeks, in part because the White House briefings kept conflicting with plans for CDC briefings. CDC Director Robert Redfield and “Schuchat have testified before Congress and briefed members in closed sessions,” The Post said. “But top CDC officials have rarely appeared on camera or been quoted in media interviews in recent weeks.” The article said Redfield participates in task force meetings, splitting his time between Atlanta and Washington.

The Biden campaign defended Klain’s comments in the video. A campaign official said it was accurate to say she “no longer appeared at public briefings of the White House coronavirus task force” because she had been with Azar, along with Redfield, at a media briefing on Jan. 28. That was one day before the task force was formed on Jan. 29.

So that was a one-off event, held long before the Feb. 25 call that spooked the markets.

The campaign also pointed to a quote from Thomas R. Frieden, a former CDC director, about Messonnier being “silenced” in a New York Times article about Anthony S. Fauci of the National Institutes of Health.

“Donald Trump neglected and lied about the coronavirus outbreak time and time again, disregarding warnings from his own medical and intelligence experts and downplaying the threat to the public. He was outraged that Dr. Messonnier didn’t follow his example and instead told the American people the truth,” said Biden campaign spokesman Andrew Bates. “And after this incident she appeared in no more briefings with Sec. Azar, a core member of the White House task force. Our assertion about her treatment is backed up by the statement of the former head of the CDC, who said, ‘Nancy Messonnier told it like it is. And she was 100 percent right, and they silenced the messenger.’”

The CDC did not respond to a request for comment.

The Pinocchio Test

Messonnier’s remarks on Feb. 25 may have caught the attention of Wall Street and caused angst in the White House. But we cannot find evidence of her being immediately silenced, as Klain claims in the video.

Messonnier continued to hold her regular telephone briefings with reporters for another two weeks. The task force briefings moved to the White House after Pence was named to head the task force, but Messonnier was not a regular participant and she appears not to have been senior enough to share the stage with the president. And although the CDC’s voice has been muted in recent weeks, that development does not appear related to her Feb. 25 comments.

We concede that news reports indicate Trump was upset by her remarks — and that there are signs he is tired of warnings from scientists and doctors as the economy implodes. He has certainly lashed out at people who have disagreed with him or given him information that conflicted with his point of view. We’ve documented Trump’s many false or misleading claims about the coronavirus outbreak.

But that’s no excuse for this video to claim Messonnier was silenced when, in fact, she kept briefing reporters. Klain would have been on more solid ground to refer to the reporting that Messonnier’s message annoyed Trump. But instead, the video created a false narrative. The Biden campaign earns Four Pinocchios.

Four Pinocchios

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