- Former Trump health officials recall clashing with Alex Azar over COVID-19 testing and CDC data.
- The former CDC director told CNN that Azar pressured him to alter a key CDC mortality dataset.
- Ex-officials have coordinated to present a united front against Azar, Politico reported.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
Health officials who worked on the COVID-19 response under former President Donald Trump clashed with Alex Azar, then-secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, on everything from COVID-19 testing to modifications of key CDC data.
A group of six officials, Dr. Anthony Fauci, former White House coronavirus task force coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx, former CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield, former FDA chief Dr. Stephen Hahn, former assistant HHS Secretary Dr. Robert Kadlec, and Adm. Brett Giroir, sat down for a tell-all TV special with CNN’s chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta that aired on Sunday.
In it, Hahn said that he and Azar got into a skirmish over the jurisdiction of COVID-19 testing.
“It was reported in the press that we had a shouting match,” Hahn said in the CNN special. “I can 100% assure you that I did not shout and scream at the secretary of Health and Human Services.
When asked if Azar had shouted at him, Hahn replied: “You should ask him that.”
In a statement provided to Insider, Azar said “Dr. Hahn’s recitation of this call is incorrect.”
“On this call, Dr. Hahn abruptly walked away from 6 weeks of collaboration with HHS staff to fix FDA’s illegal assertion of jurisdiction over common lab developed tests, an assertion that slowed the development of U.S. COVID testing in the early days,” he said.
“I was further shocked at Dr. Hahn’s escalation on the topic, and to my recollection, the only intemperate conduct was Dr. Hahn’s threat to resign,” he added. “I was confused at his reaction and offered that if it would help Dr. Hahn, HHS would announce the legal conclusion to allow Dr. Hahn to retain credibility with the career staff at FDA, which seemed to be Dr. Hahn’s concern. This call was witnessed by the HHS Chief of Staff and HHS General Counsel.”
Hahn denied that he threatened to resign during that conversation with Azar.
Redfield, for his part, told Gupta that the major conflicts he had were not with the White House, but with Azar and HHS. He even claimed that Azar pressed him to change the data in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, one of the agency’s most important datasets.
“I didn’t have really very difficult challenges with the White House. The challenges I had were with the office of the Secretary,” Redfield told Gupta. “I think some of the ones that were the most notable, that I was the most offended by, was the calls that wanted me to pressure and change the MMWR.”
The CDC says that the MMWR “is the agency’s primary vehicle for scientific publication of timely, reliable, authoritative, accurate, objective, and useful public health information and recommendations.”
Azar categorically denied Redfield’s claim that he was pressured to change the MMWR data on multiple occasions.
“From the beginning of this pandemic, I insisted on giving the public and media access to both critical information and data as soon as we had it, as well as to our scientists,” Azar said in a statement provided to Insider.
“I have always stood for and defended the scientific independence of the MMWR and other evidence and science-based publications and disclosures from HHS and its agencies, and Dr. Redfield knows this. Any suggestion that I pressured or otherwise asked Dr. Redfield to change the content of a single scientific, peer-reviewed MMWR article is false,” he added.”
With an increasing number journalists writing books and appearing on live TV to shed light on the Trump administration’s COVID-19 response, Politico reported that former officials, including the doctors who appeared in the CNN special, coordinated ahead of time to present a united front against Azar in everything they say publicly.
The outlet reported that the group, which sometimes jokingly calls itself “Alex Azar Anonymous,” had “swapped notes, compared recollections and sent updates on media requests and interview opportunities” in recent weeks.
Meanwhile, Azar also found himself at odds with the White House, struggling to stay relevant and in Trump’s good graces.
While Azar was initially put in charge of the administration’s COVID-19 response, Trump sidelined him in favor of former Vice President Mike Pence after a top CDC official raised alarms in February 2020 that the coronavirus would inevitably become a pandemic, the Wall Street Journal reported in April 2020.