Former Trump health officials say they clashed with Alex Azar over COVID-19 testing and interference with the CDC’s weekly reports

Robert Redfield
Former Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Dr. Robert Redfield testifies about coronavirus preparedness and response to the House Government Oversight and Reform Committee on Capitol Hill on March 12, 2020.

  • 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.
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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.

Read more: Insider found 20 governors haven’t gotten their COVID-19 vaccine. Here’s who – and why.

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.

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House panel says CDC director Robert Redfield demanded the deletion of an email showing interference in Covid-19 guidance

trump visit cdc
US President Donald Trump alongside US Health and Human Service Secretary Alex Azar (at left), and CDC Director Robert Redfield (at right) during a tour of the CDC headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, on March 6, 2020.

  • CDC Robert Redfield allegedly ordered subordinates to delete an email from a senior health official in the Trump administration requesting changes to a major report on how COVID-19 impacts children.
  • Charlotte Kent, editor of the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, told congressional investigators on Monday that she was instructed her to delete HHS staffer Paul Alexander’s email in August.
  • Rep. James Clyburn, who leads the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, wrote in a letter to Trump administration health officials that the email deletion may be evidence of a cover-up of political interference. 
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The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Robert Redfield, allegedly ordered subordinates to delete an email from a senior health official in the Trump administration requesting changes to a major report on how COVID-19 impacts children.

Charlotte Kent, editor of the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, told congressional investigators on Monday that, at Redfield’s direction, a colleague at the CDC instructed her to delete HHS staffer Paul Alexander’s email in August. She was on vacation at the time and told investigators that by the time she’d searched for the email, it had already been deleted. 

Rep. James Clyburn, who leads the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, wrote in a letter to Redfield and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar that he has “serious” concerns about “what may be deliberate efforts by the Trump Administration to conceal and destroy evidence that senior political appointees interfered with career officials’ response to the coronavirus crisis at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

The MMWR was not altered before it was published. But intentionally destroying federal records is a criminal offense that can be punished with prison time. 

In the email, which Clyburn quotes in his letter, Alexander wrote that the CDC’s report on the coronavirus’ impact on children was “very misleading” and aimed to undermine President Donald Trump. 

“This is designed to hurt this President [sic] for their reasons which I am not interested in,” Alexander, a top aide to Azar, wrote in the deleted message. 

Clyburn also alleged in his letter that Trump administration officials improperly delayed the publication of a CDC report on the spread of COVID-19 at a Georgia summer camp until after Redfield testified before Congress on July 31.

A spokesperson for HHS told The Washington Post that Clyburn’s characterization of Kent’s allegations was “irresponsible” and denied her charges. 

“We urge the subcommittee to release the transcript in full, which will show that during her testimony Dr. Kent repeatedly said there was no political interference in the MMWR process,” the spokesperson said. 

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