House Democrats subpoena HHS and CDC directors for documents in political interference investigation

US President Donald Trump (2nd L) speaks next to US Health and Human Service Secretary Alex Azar (L), CDC Director Robert Redfield (2nd R), and CDC Associate Director for Laboratory Science and Safety (ADLSS) Dr. Steve Monroe during a tour of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia, on March 6, 2020. By Lauren Fox and Manu Raju, CNN

(CNN) -- House Democrats on Monday subpoenaed Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield for documents related to their investigation into what role alleged political interference may have played in educating the American public on the spread and threat of the coronavirus.

Democrats on the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis warned Azar and Redfield that they have until December 30 to produce all the emails and communications related to the publication of a series of scientific reports. The committee first requested the documents in September.

CNN has reached out to HHS and CDC for comment.

The committee argued that they need the documents to continue their investigation, which they say so far has revealed that over a four-month stretch, the "Trump administration appointees attempted to alter or block at least 14 scientific reports related to the virus." The subcommittee also is alleging that political appointees drafted rebuttals to discredit official scientific CDC reports, and political officials retaliated against career officials who did not fall in line.

"Top political officials at HHS and CDC not only tolerated these efforts, but in some cases aided them—even after a senior career official warned that CDC's scientific writing 'needs to remain an independent process' and that the Administration's attempts to influence these reports violated 'long-standing policy,'" Democrats on the committee wrote in a letter to Azar and Redfield.

House Democrats on the committee allege that according to an interview they conducted with a career staffer at CDC, both HHS Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Michael Caputo and Paul Alexander, a senior adviser, attempted to exert political influence over the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports, which were intended to give the public a clear view of what was happening with the coronavirus.

The editor and chief of those reports, Charlotte Kent, told committee staff that Alexander "contacted her directly on numerous occasions to pressure her to make changes to Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports and to seek a larger role in the review process, in violation of longtime CDC and HHS policy to maintain the independence of these reports."

While the committee's Democrats say Kent and other officials were largely able to keep those requests at bay, testimony and documents "show that she and other career officials were forced to fend off more than a dozen attempts to influence CDC's scientific publications, and in some cases were instructed to make changes recommended by political officials." One of those attempts came in June when Alexander attempted to make changes to a report on hydroxychloroquine, which lost its emergency use authorization after it was deemed more harmful than helpful as a treatment of coronavirus. The Democrats on the committee also chronicled that Alexander attempted to influence the contents of other reports on the efficacy of cloth face coverings and the risks of underlying health conditions and coronavirus.

"To the extent career staff were successful in limiting the damage, as Dr. Kent stated she was, that is a testament to the career staff's integrity and resilience—not an indication that the Trump Administration's political pressure tactics were appropriate or scientifically sound," the committee Democrats wrote in the letter.

Democrats on the committee first requested the documents back in September, but after months of negotiations, Democrats say they have hit a roadblock with HHS and CDC in getting the documents and interviews they need to complete their work. Democrats also point to the fact that one official told them in an interview earlier this month that they were told to delete an email that had come from a political appointee

"The Department's document production remains woefully incomplete," Democrats on the committee wrote.

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