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Covid-19 Shows the Disastrous Results of What Happens When Science Is Sacrificed for Politics

The Trump administration has ignored expert advice on coronavirus.

May 11, 2020

An effect­ive govern­ment response to the coronavirus pandemic requires that polit­ical offi­cials consult scientific experts for guid­ance to stop the spread of infec­tion. Unfor­tu­nately, the evid­ence is mount­ing that the Trump admin­is­tra­tion has been doing just the oppos­ite, repeatedly reject­ing expert advice in the name of polit­ical expedi­ency. This disreg­ard for expert­ise is part of a much larger erosion of ethics and the rule of law that has grown increas­ingly alarm­ing during the pandemic. One way to turn the tide is for Congress and the public to hear from experts on the White House’s coronavirus task force, like Dr. Anthony Fauci.

Fauci, the director of the National Insti­tute for Allergy and Infec­tious Diseases, is sched­uled to testify before a Senate commit­tee on Tues­day (He will be doing so remotely because of possible expos­ure to the novel coronavirus among the White House staff.). He was only allowed to testify in the Senate after the Trump admin­is­tra­tion preven­ted him from testi­fy­ing before the House commit­tee that over­sees the Depart­ment of Health and Human Services because — in the pres­id­ent’s words — it’s full of “Trump haters.” Even the commit­tee’s rank­ing Repub­lican criti­cized Trump’s stone­walling. The White House has prohib­ited the rest of the coronavirus task force from testi­fy­ing before Congress for this entire month.

Still, the Fauci hear­ing will be a signi­fic­ant oppor­tun­ity to learn about the federal govern­ment’s plans to reduce trans­mis­sion of Covid-19, alloc­ate resources, test for infec­tion, and treat those who fall ill. It will also let Amer­ic­ans assess how much — or how little — the admin­is­tra­tion is listen­ing to experts’ advice and incor­por­at­ing it into policy.

What we know about the admin­is­tra­tion’s response so far is damning, and the effects — as meas­ured by soar­ing infec­tions and deaths in the United States compared with most other coun­tries — are undeni­able. From the begin­ning of this health crisis, the Trump admin­is­tra­tion has sought to suppress the scientific opin­ions of health experts for polit­ical gain, and the pres­id­ent consist­ently down­played the dangers despite repeated dire warn­ings in Janu­ary and Febru­ary.

More recently, the admin­is­tra­tion blocked public­a­tion of a guide writ­ten by Centers for Disease Control experts about how to reopen public places safely over concerns that the guid­ance would slow down efforts to quickly reboot the economy, which the pres­id­ent sees as crit­ical to reelec­tion.

We will likely learn more on Thursday, when a senior govern­ment health scient­ist turned whis­tleblower test­i­fies before a House subcom­mit­tee. Dr. Rick Bright was removed as the head of a key federal vaccine agency after he raised concerns about the effic­acy of anti­m­al­arial drugs the pres­id­ent touted as a Covid-19 treat­ment — even though they have been found to provide no thera­peutic bene­fit and actu­ally worsen health outcomes for Covid-19 patients. Trump and several large donors to his reelec­tion campaign have a finan­cial stake in manu­fac­tur­ers of the drugs.

Bright has said that he repeatedly tried to raise the alarm over Covid-19 in Febru­ary but was shut down by polit­ical appointees. He has also said that he was repeatedly pres­sured to award govern­ment contracts to compan­ies with polit­ical connec­tions to the admin­is­tra­tion and Jared Kush­ner, Trump’s son-in-law.

Kush­ner himself is more directly tied to the admin­is­tra­tion’s disastrous response to the pandemic, as he leads the so-called “shadow task force.” As the name suggests, it has allegedly skir­ted govern­ment trans­par­ency laws, and it has completely botched its crit­ical task of secur­ing personal protect­ive equip­ment for health­care work­ers across the coun­try while grant­ing special treat­ment to Trump asso­ci­ates.

Mean­while, other parts of the govern­ment have censored inform­a­tion that should be public as well. The CDC removed data from its website about the number of Amer­ic­ans who have been tested for and died of Covid-19 (although it has resumed report­ing this inform­a­tion). And while several federal agen­cies disclose the number of their employ­ees who are infec­ted, the Depart­ment of the Interior has declined to do so.

This type of suppres­sion fore­closes access to inform­a­tion that members of Congress and the public need to assess whether the Trump admin­is­tra­tion’s Covid-19 plans will protect our health. Disclos­ure is also needed to hold exec­ut­ive branch offi­cials account­able for their actions.

The lack of trans­par­ency and account­ab­il­ity in the federal govern­ment’s response to Covid-19 is symp­to­matic of long­stand­ing prob­lems of polit­ics under­min­ing the integ­rity of govern­ment science. For instance, there have been epis­odes of censor­ship of federal climate scient­ists’ congres­sional testi­mony from the late 1980s until 2019. The collapse of unwrit­ten rules that long ensured ethical and well-reasoned govern­ment decision-making has accel­er­ated and come into plain view during this crisis.

It’s clear now more than ever that Congress must pass safe­guards to protect govern­ment experts from censor­ship and retali­ation, as well as to improve ethics, lead­er­ship, trans­par­ency, and account­ab­il­ity in exec­ut­ive branch poli­cy­mak­ing. The Bren­nan Center’s bipar­tisan National Task Force on Rule of Law & Demo­cracy has created a legis­lat­ive agenda that would accom­plish these goals. These reforms are essen­tial to ensure that policy decisions are made in the public interest — and not for personal or polit­ical gain.