Democrats are probing potential improper political influence at several different agencies across government.
Democrats are pursuing a growing number of probes into allegations that political appointees across the Trump administration are interfering with the work of career employees, including some lawmakers who have called on top officials to resign.
The investigations range from the Health and Human Services Department to the Environmental Protection Agency and the Homeland Security Department, among others, and include matters related to novel coronavirus response, election interference and regulatory efforts.
At HHS, Democrats on the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis launched an inquiry into allegations political appointees at the department, including within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have pressured scientists and other experts to alter data related to the pandemic. The lawmakers, citing reports from Politico, also noted officials' interference with experts seeking to disclose information on the virus’ impact on children. Both instances involved Michael Caputo, HHS assistant secretary for public affairs, allegedly meddling in the work of career employees.
The Democrats accused Trump appointees of viewing the work of career scientists as “opportunities for political manipulation.”
“Political appointees’ attempts to interfere with CDC’s scientific reports…risk undermining the scientific integrity of these reports and of the CDC itself,” they said. The lawmakers requested transcribed interviews with seven HHS officials, including Caputo.
Senate Minority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., went a step further on Tuesday, demanding that HHS Secretary Alex Azar resign over the alleged political interference.
“Too many people within HHS are trying to suppress the science,” Schumer said. “The secretary of Health and Human Services, Alex Azar, has not only failed to push back against these outrageous moves by President Trump, he has been almost entirely silent about the chaos and mismanagement in his own agency.” The senator suggested administration officials must be able to stand up to the president and “resist political influence,” but Azar had “become subservient to the president's daily whims.”
“So today,” Schumer added, “I'm calling on Secretary Azar to resign immediately.”
Rick Bright in May filed a complaint with the Office of Special Counsel after he lost his job as director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority within HHS due to his outspokenness over his concerns about the administration’s handling of the pandemic, which has already resulted in a preliminary ruling in his favor.
Also on Tuesday, Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., the top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, asked the EPA inspector general to investigate whether political officials in the agency’s Office of General Counsel were improperly stepping on the work of career attorneys. Carper said his staff had identified several instances in which EPA listed only political appointees as the attorneys of record on legal briefs and motions in various federal courts, calling the practice “extraordinary” and possibly unprecedented. The cases all involved EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions and waterway pollution, he said, adding he learned in at least one case career officials refused to sign their names because the arguments had “no legal merit at all.”
“The absence of career officials listed on these filings could be regarded as a conspicuous signal that the normal process of obtaining dispassionate legal analysis on these cases, conducted by experienced career EPA attorneys, has been discarded,” Carper said in a letter asking the IG to launch an investigation.
Inquiries at EPA’s Science Integrity Office have spiked under the Trump administration. Employees at agencies like EPA, NASA, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have previously told Government Executive they are facing unprecedented interference from political leadership, including rollbacks of previous work and meddling in research. Scientists reported being left out of key meetings, feeling fearful in their offices and a general sense of low morale. A Union of Concerned Scientists survey in 2018 found federal employees felt stymied by censorship and interference from political appointees, including 50% who said political considerations were hindering agencies' ability to make science-based decisions.
Earlier this year, dozens of current and former EPA, Fish and Wildlife Service and Army Corps of Engineers employees filed a complaint with the EPA inspector general and scientific integrity officer requesting investigations into political interference during the process of repealing the Waters of the United States rule implemented during the Obama administration.
In the House, meanwhile, Democrats on the Intelligence Committee have launched an investigation into whistleblower disclosures made by Brian Murphy, a DHS employee who has alleged he was instructed by political appointees to downplay the threats posed by Russian interference in U.S. elections and white supremacists. Murphy said he subsequently faced reprisal for making the disclosures. The committee has asked Murphy to testify later this month and recently requested that DHS make 11 officials available for transcribed interviews. DHS told the committee this week its probe was too broad and the department would not be able to accommodate the requests in the prescribed time frame.
In a statement to The Hill, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., chairman of the Intelligence Committee, said DHS was demonstrating a “pattern of misconduct and politicization of intelligence” and added he would consider a subpoena to compel the department’s “full cooperation.”