White House Refused to Release CDC Opening Guidance

A report outlining steps for re-opening the economy in the wake of COVID-19 has been leaked to the press.

AP (“AP Exclusive: Docs show top WH officials buried CDC report“):

The decision to shelve detailed advice from the nation’s top disease control experts for reopening communities during the coronavirus pandemic came from the highest levels of the White House, according to internal government emails obtained by The Associated Press.

The files also show that after the AP reported Thursday that the guidance document had been buried, the Trump administration ordered key parts of it to be fast-tracked for approval.

The trove of emails show the nation’s top public health experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention spending weeks working on guidance to help the country deal with a public health emergency, only to see their work quashed by political appointees with little explanation.

The document, titled “Guidance for Implementing the Opening Up America Again Framework,” was researched and written to help faith leaders, business owners, educators and state and local officials as they begin to reopen. It included detailed “decision trees,” or flow charts aimed at helping local leaders navigate the difficult decision of whether to reopen or remain closed.

White House spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany said Friday that the documents had not been approved by CDC Director Robert Redfield. The new emails, however, show that Redfield cleared the guidance.

This new CDC guidance — a mix of advice already released along with newer information — had been approved and promoted by the highest levels of its leadership, including Redfield. Despite this, the administration shelved it on April 30.

As early as April 10, Redfield, who is also a member of the White House coronavirus task force, shared via email the guidance and decision trees with President Donald Trump’s inner circle, including his son-in-law Jared Kushner, top adviser Kellyanne Conway and Joseph Grogan, assistant to the president for domestic policy. Also included were Dr. Deborah Birx, Dr. Anthony Fauci and other task force members.

Three days later, CDC’s upper management sent the more than 60-page report with attached flow charts to the White House Office of Management and Budget, a step usually taken only when agencies are seeking final White House approval for documents they have already cleared.

The 17-page version later released by The AP and other news outlets was only part of the actual document submitted by the CDC, and targeted specific facilities like bars and restaurants. The AP obtained a copy Friday of the full document. That version is a more universal series of phased guidelines, “Steps for All Americans in Every Community,” geared to advise communities as a whole on testing, contact tracing and other fundamental infection control measures.

On April 24, Redfield again emailed the guidance documents to Birx and Grogan, according to a copy viewed by The AP. Redfield asked Birx and Grogan for their review so that the CDC could post the guidance publicly. Attached to Redfield’s email were the guidance documents and the corresponding decision trees — including one for meat packing plants.
“We plan to post these to CDC’s website once approved. Peace, God bless r3,” the director wrote. (Redfield’s initials are R.R.R.)

Redfield’s emailed comments contradict the White House assertion Thursday that it had not yet approved the guidelines because the CDC’s own leadership had not yet given them the green light.

Two days later, on April 26, the CDC still had not received any word from the administration, according to the internal communications. Robert McGowan, the CDC chief of staff who was shepherding the guidance through the OMB, sent an email seeking an update. “We need them as soon as possible so that we can get them posted,” he wrote to Nancy Beck, an OMB staffer.

Beck said she was awaiting review by the White House Principals Committee, a group of top White House officials. “They need to be approved before they can move forward. WH principals are in touch with the task force so the task force should be aware of the status,” Beck wrote to McGowan.

The next day, April 27, Satya Thallam of the OMB sent the CDC a similar response: “The re-opening guidance and decision tree documents went to a West Wing principals committee on Sunday. We have not received word on specific timing for their considerations.

“However, I am passing along their message: they have given strict and explicit direction that these documents are not yet cleared and cannot go out as of right now — this includes related press statements or other communications that may preview content or timing of guidances.”

According to the documents, CDC continued inquiring for days about the guidance that officials had hoped to post by Friday, May 1, the day Trump had targeted for reopening some businesses, according to a source who was granted anonymity because they were not permitted to speak to the press.

On April 30 the CDC’s documents were killed for good.

On the grand scale of conduct by this administration, this is more bizarre than outrageous.

The administration certainly has the legal authority to decide whether to release CDC guidance and I doubt there’s much if anything in here that other public health experts haven’t already advised the public and state governors.

But I can’t, for the life of me, figure out what possible advantage trying to quash this report served. Even if we put aside the standard expectation that the White House ought be acting in the interest of the American people and look at it in terms of the considerations of a President looking to be re-elected in November, there’s no obvious way this would have been helpful even without the inevitable leaks.

All the polling shows that the American people are simultaneously frustrated by the continued shutdown of the economy and too scared to go back to normal even if they were allowed to do so. One would think expert advice on how to bridge that gap would therefore be welcome.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2020, COVID-19, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. OzarkHillbilly says:

    One would think expert advice on how to bridge that gap would therefore be welcome.

    One would think, but we’re talking about trump, who only accepts advice that agrees with what is already in his head.

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  2. Argon says:

    But I can’t, for the life of me, figure out what possible advantage trying to quash this report served.

    That’s because you’re not a sociopath, unlike those working in the White House.

    When the Chief Sociopath said “I take no responsibility” you might have thought he accepted no responsibility for his inaction. But what that actually meant was that his administration activity works to ensure he can deny responsibility for any of his actions that objectively make things worse.

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  3. mattbernius says:

    Clearly James you haven’t been listening to the @JKB “experts cannot be trusted and it’s their fault that Trump is in trouble” wing of the party.

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  4. grumpy realist says:

    At least with the chaos at the White House and the hand-tying of the CDC the lifting of the crackdowns seems to have devolved back to the individual states. Which is probably better in the long run, since we really don’t have “one” epidemic, but multiple ones all over the place. Chicago isn’t the same as the middle of Kansas, and shouldn’t be treated the same way. As Richard North has pointed out, one of the reasons the U.K. is having so many problems at present is that HMS has been trying to micromanage everything from the top in London (and doing badly).

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  5. DrDaveT says:

    I doubt there’s much if anything in here that other public health experts haven’t already advised the public and state governors.

    Really? I haven’t seen a lot of detailed decision trees or flowcharts for deciding when it is safe to do what. If you have, please share them.

    But I can’t, for the life of me, figure out what possible advantage trying to quash this report served.

    Surely it’s obvious — the report makes it clear that there are very few jurisdictions in the US where it is already sensible to reopen bars, hair salons, bowling alleys, etc. Since Trump wants to see states reopening as soon as possible, he hates the report with the white-hot heat of 1000 suns. The report would hurt his numbers; it’s that simple.

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  6. DrDaveT says:

    @grumpy realist:

    we really don’t have “one” epidemic, but multiple ones all over the place

    Some of which haven’t started yet.

    This is the part that really frustrates me — none of the conversations I’m seeing, either from the hacks or the experts, really addresses the fact that limiting spread, slowing spread, and reducing peak impact in a given place are separate (but interrelated) problems, requiring multiple different strategies. The relative success of social distancing at slowing spread has created a false sense of security in the places where the virus has not yet gained a foothold. People have been allowed to think that things are bad in New York for reasons that mean it will never be bad in Paducah or Pocatello. As we’ve seen in Italy and Spain, that’s simply not true.

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  7. Stormy Dragon says:

    If the CDC releases no guidance, then no matter what happens between now and November, Trump can claim it’s the fault of governors not doing what he told them to do and that everything would have been perfect if they had.

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  8. Slugger says:

    @grumpy realist: Agree that the heterogeneity of our country requires a regional approach. I’d even say that many of our states are big and have urban concentrations and rural counties that should be weighed. However, some scientific parameters that the governors could use as guidance rather than their whims would be useful. Our health should not be a lesser priority than winning the next election.

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  9. DrDaveT says:

    @Slugger:

    I’d even say that many of our states are big and have urban concentrations and rural counties that should be weighed.

    Governor Northam announced yesterday that Virginia is planning to have different schedules for densely-populated (and more infected) DC-adjacent areas than for the rest of the state. Which makes perfect sense.

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  10. Gustopher says:

    @grumpy realist:

    At least with the chaos at the White House and the hand-tying of the CDC the lifting of the crackdowns seems to have devolved back to the individual states. Which is probably better in the long run, since we really don’t have “one” epidemic, but multiple ones all over the place. Chicago isn’t the same as the middle of Kansas, and shouldn’t be treated the same way.

    But Chicago is basically the same as Atlanta, New York City and Miami, while the middle of Kansas is pretty much the same as either Dakota, rural Washington and rural New York. Clear respected guidelines at a federal level would be incredibly helpful.

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  11. grumpy realist says:

    @Gustopher: Actually, they aren’t. Different cities have different packing densities of people, different modes of transportation, different levels of industry vs. walk-in service providers, different percentages (and absolute population) of old people vs. young people, different numbers of peoples with different lifestyles (Hispanics vs. WASP), and different number of multiple-family dwellings vs. apt. complexes vs. single-family homes. This is why I say that every place is different. We’ve already seen the differences played out in Italy, where cities in the north had completely different fatality rates than those in the south.

    The best that CDC can do is act as a clearing house for validated information (both reports and tracking) and providing information on guidelines for medical treatments. I’d also like to see them nagging states about testing and tracking and provide them with Best Practice guides. Deciding when and how to raise the lockdown? Eh. Let different states experiment with what they feel best and be diligent in tracking the results.

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  12. Kathy says:

    One time I watched my then 4 yer old nephew for a few hours, I decided early on it wasn’t worth the effort to try to make sense of his tantrums. Toddlers are like that, even when they are toddlers over 70 years old.

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  13. Moosebreath says:

    James,

    “But I can’t, for the life of me, figure out what possible advantage trying to quash this report served.”

    Trump has a long history of thinking things will magically work out for him, not just with respect to this pandemic, but in lots of other cases as well. So he believes that if this report gets suppressed, and businesses re-open quickly, this will permit people to get back to work, and the economy to take off prior to Election Day, ensuring he gets re-elected.

    Any holes in this reasoning are just “fake news”.

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  14. Erik says:

    Additionally it serves the trump-GOP purposes to foment anger among his supports in blue states and “ha ha we win” elation in red states. Keeping things unsettled and creating us/them divides makes it easier for him to demagogue

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  15. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    no matter what happens between now and November, Trump can claim it’s the fault of governors not doing what he told them to do and that everything would have been perfect if they had.

    Or in the alternative of doing what he said and having bad outcomes, that it was only natural that different places would need to do things differently and that they should have sought expert opinions for their state. The are on their own after all. The Federal Government isn’t supposed to tell them when to reopen or anything, just like it isn’t a supply warehouse for PPG.

  16. CSK says:

    @Moosebreath:
    This.
    I wonder to what extent Trump absorbed the lessons of Norman Vincent “The Power of Positive Thinking” Peale, the Trump family pastor. A large extent, I’d bet.

    If you believe you’ll prevail, you will prevail. No negative thoughts allowed.

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  17. Gustopher says:

    @Guarneri: The first rule of dealing drugs is that you don’t use your product.

    Ok, the first rule is that you pay Big Jimmy. The second rule is that you don’t use your own product.

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  18. al Ameda says:

    @Guarneri:

    Why don’t you write about Flynn, his set up, and the now obvious fact that the FBI leadership were dirty cops and Obama no different than Richard Nixon. The documents are smoking gun. Your minds are smoking shut. TDR on steroids.

    Exactly. Flynn only pleaded guilty twice, that’s certainly evidence that he was set up. Now, if he pleaded guilty three times, that would be different.
    The TDS I see regularly is on the side of Trump supporters. Those White Nationalist clowns in Michigan who showed up in the cpital building with rifles and other weaponry – TDS.

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  19. Gustopher says:

    @al Ameda:

    Exactly. Flynn only pleaded guilty twice, that’s certainly evidence that he was set up. Now, if he pleaded guilty three times, that would be different.

    Well then you trigger the three strikes law.

    Who among us has not pled guilty to federal offenses, and then reaffirmed that pleading in front of a judge?

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  20. Slugger says:

    @Guarneri: Sincere question:
    When Trump fired Flynn he justified it by saying that Flynn lied to the VP. Has anything happened to change that assessment?
    I’m not sympathetic to Flynn. A high ranking general should not be allowed to provide consulting services to foreign governments. It is not illegal, but it should be. I don’t think that the Turkish and Russian governments were merely looking for good advice. I think that they wanted information that an insider to the highest councils of our military establishment should not be selling.

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