A former Trump campaign official now spokesman for the US health department sought to change key reports on the coronavirus pandemic, in some cases “openly complaining” that they “would undermine the president’s optimistic messages about the outbreak”, according to internal emails seen by Politico.
The official, Michael Caputo, told the website he was attempting to stymie “ulterior deep state motives in the bowels” of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC.
The news comes after reports that a whistleblower at the Department of Homeland Security said he was told to stop making Donald Trump “look bad”, via reports on Russian election interference.
It also comes as a new book by Bob Woodward details the president’s reasoning behind optimistic messaging about the coronavirus outbreak.
“I wanted to always play it down,” Trump told Woodward in March, more than a month after telling him the virus was “deadly stuff”.
“I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”
Trump’s comments – and Woodward’s decision to save them for his book – caused outcry. According to researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, 6.4m people have been infected in the US and more than 192,000 have died. Other counts put the death toll over 200,000.
Caputo, who became spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services in April, is a Republican consultant who worked on the Trump campaign in 2015 and 2016. He has links to Russia, having worked in the country’s energy industry, and to Roger Stone, a Trump ally whose sentence arising from the Russia investigation was commuted by the president.
Politico reported that under Caputo’s direction, CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports were subject to “substantial efforts to align … with Trump’s statements, including the president’s claims that fears about the outbreak are overstated, or stop the reports altogether”.
“Caputo and his team have attempted to add caveats to the CDC’s findings,” the website said, “including an effort to retroactively change agency reports that they said wrongly inflated the risks of Covid-19 and should have made clear that Americans sickened by the virus may have been infected because of their own behavior.”
One report Caputo’s team tried to stop, the website said, concerned hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malarial drug which Trump and key aides pushed for use in treatment of Covid-19 but which studies have said can be dangerous. The report was published last week, reportedly after being held for a month because its authors’ political views were in question.
In one August email seen by Politico, another political appointee accused the CDC of writing “hit pieces on the administration” and trying to “hurt the president”.
Caputo told the website: “Buried in this good [CDC] work are sometimes stories which seem to purposefully mislead and undermine the president’s Covid response with what some scientists label as poor scholarship – and others call politics disguised in science.”
He also said: “Our intention is to make sure that evidence, science-based data drives policy through this pandemic – not ulterior deep state motives in the bowels of CDC.”
The “deep state” conspiracy theory, enthusiastically propounded by the president and senior aides, holds that a permanent government of bureaucrats and intelligence officials exists to thwart Trump’s agenda.
Trump recently claimed that the “deep state” was responsible for the Food and Drug Administration delaying approval for unproven Covid therapeutics.
Steve Bannon, a former Trump campaign manager and White House strategist now under indictment for fraud, was a key early proponent of the “deep state” theory.
He is on record saying it is “for nut cases” and “none of this is true”.