Trump White House overrode Covid guidance for churches, emails show

Donald Trump’s administration overrode Covid-19 guidance to religious organizations, according to newly released emails, which would have encouraged churches to consider virtual religious services rather than in-person worship.

In May 2020, as coronavirus cases and deaths surged, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sent the White House a draft of its planned guidance to faith-based communities, seeking approval for publication.

At the time coronavirus cases were increasingly being reported in churches across the US. Cases would continue to soar in places of worship in the following months.

In response, the CDC planned to suggest that religious groups restrict in-person attendance at services, and instead hold them online.

When that guidance arrived at the White House, however, it prompted discussions which ended up with important passages being struck out. In an email exchange with Kellyanne Conway, a counselor to Trump, Paul Ray, the administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, suggested a series of edits.

“The new CDC draft includes a significant amount of new content, much of which seems to raise religious liberty concerns. In the attached, I have proposed several passages for deletion to address those concerns,” Ray wrote.

“If these edits are acceptable to you all, we could tell CDC, as early in the morning as possible, that they are free to publish contingent on striking the offensive passages.”

In her reply, Conway thanked Ray for “holding firm against the newest round of mission creep”.

In another email chain, Trump officials expressed dissatisfaction with CDC recommendations – which had already been posted online – which suggested that faith communities should consider holding services online.

May Davis, a legal adviser to Trump, wrote to Paul and other officials that “problematic guidance is still online”. Davis attached suggested edits to the CDC guidance, which she said “removes all of the tele-church suggestions”.

Davis added: “Though personally I will say that if I was old and vulnerable (I do feel old and vulnerable), drive through services would sound welcome.”

Representative James Clyburn, chairman of the select subcommittee on the coronavirus crisis, which released the emails, said in a statement that the Trump administration had “prioritized politics over public health”.

“As today’s new evidence also makes clear, Trump White House officials worked under the direction of the former president to purposefully undercut public health officials’ recommendations and muzzle their ability to communicate clearly to the American public,” Clyburn wrote.

On Friday Gene Dodaro, head of the Government Accountability Office, is due to testify before Congress about a GAO report which found staff at the CDC and other public health agencies witnessed “political interference” during the response to the pandemic.

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