Trump's gutting of experts at HHS set the stage for his COVID-19 debacle: report
Donald Trump in the White House. (vasilis asvestas /

According to a report from Politico, Donald Trump and his political appointees did significant damage to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in the early days of the administration, which set the stage for significant failings of the department when confronted by the coronavirus pandemic that has killed over 300,000 Americans in less than a year.

Using internal documents and interviews with former employees, the report paints a portrait of an incoming administration that was hostile to science from the outset and proceeded to shut down an all-important department that would have proved helpful in batting COVID-19.

According to Politico's Dan Diamond, "Two-and-a-half years before Covid-19 would bring the issue of political interference with the Health and Human Services Department to a head, the flap surrounding the disbanding of the Science and Medicine team showed the extent to which tensions within the department were undermining its mission and sowing distrust between longtime staff members and Trump appointees."

At issue were health initiatives that the Trump administration had no interest in seeing move forward including improving "tobacco control and gather data on racial disparities."

"Trump appointees sidelined, ignored or pushed out career health officials in favor of policies demanded by the White House, a dynamic that would repeat itself throughout the pandemic," Politico reported.

Case in point was the administration forcing out Tom Novotny, the deputy assistant secretary for health, who opposed "Trump's picks for key scientific positions, some of whom had little medical expertise but were championed by religious rights organizations."

Offered a different position, he declined, saying in an interview, "They told me I was going to be transferred to the Office of Research Integrity, which already had a director. I wasn't going to do that. It was basically a demotion."

"Novotny's abrupt, forced retirement shook members of his core eight-person team, which focused on a broad range of public health issues, from implementing national strategies on autism and pain to helping fight the Zika outbreak," Diamond wrote. "Three years later, some current officials said the loss of Novotny has especially been felt amid Covid-19."

According to the report, Trump appointees came in with one topic in mind: damaging the Affordable Care Act.

"Many career officials said they had braced for the new administration to attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act and replace it with another program geared to provide less expensive options, as Trump had promised on the campaign trail. But using the bureaucracy to undermine the ACA, without repealing it or offering an alternative, struck them as a violation of HHS's entire public-health mission," Diamond wrote.

According to the report, career officials were also put in awkward positions such as being asked by Trump appointees to join in prayer sessions and coaching some new hires who had no experience in health matters -- but were Trump loyalists.

"They ran all of HHS like it was a political campaign and not an executive agency," said one former official, "In the Obama administration, the TVs rotated between Fox News, MSNBC and CNN. But things changed very rapidly under Trump, with Fox News being put on all the TVs. … It's like they only wanted the TVs to repeat the news they wanted to hear."

You can read more here.