Emails: Trump nominee involved in shelving CDC virus guide

JASON DEAREN and MICHAEL BIESECKER
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Virus Outbreak Shelved Report

FILE - In this May 11, 2020, file photo President Donald Trump arrives to speak about the coronavirus during a press briefing in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington. A former chemical industry executive who Trump has nominated to become the nation’s top consumer safety watchdog was involved in sidelining detailed guidelines to help communities reopen amid the coronavirus pandemic, internal government emails show. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — A former chemical industry executive nominated to be the nation’s top consumer safety watchdog was involved in sidelining detailed guidelines to help communities reopen during the coronavirus pandemic, internal government emails show.

Now the ranking Democrat on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee is questioning the role played by nominee Nancy Beck in the decision to shelve the guidelines. Beck is not a medical doctor and has no background in virology.

President Donald Trump has nominated Beck to be chairwoman and commissioner of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, a position that requires Senate confirmation. Beck is scheduled to appear before the Senate committee later this month.

Emails obtained by The Associated Press show that Beck was the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s main point of contact in the White House about the proposed recommendations. At issue was a 63-page guide created by the CDC that would give community leaders step-by-step instructions for reopening schools, day care centers, restaurants and other facilities.

Beck is currently on detail for the White House with the Office of Management and Budget, where she is coordinating review of pandemic-related stimulus measures, and of the CDC guidance. She has a doctorate in environmental health and has worked as a toxicologist, specializing in the study of the health risks from chemical substances to the human body.

“I am deeply concerned by the nominee’s involvement in advocating for the deregulation of toxic chemicals known as PFAS and I also have questions about her potential involvement with the CDC coronavirus guidance,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell, the top Democrat on the committee, in a statement to AP.

Cantwell sent a letter of inquiry on Wednesday to Beck, asking for more information. Beck did not immediately respond to questions from AP sent to her via email.

Beck’s role in the coronavirus guidance document was revealed in a series of emails from late April obtained by the AP.

On April 10, CDC Director Robert Redfield emailed the guidance to a group that included some of the president’s closest White House advisers, including Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, and counselor Kellyanne Conway, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government's top infectious disease expert. Redfield wrote that he wanted White House review and clearance to post the documents on the CDC website.

By the time the administration had released its “Opening Up America Again” plan on April 17, the process had stalled.

The emails show that the CDC's chief of staff, Robert “Kyle” McGowan, emailed Beck on April 26 seeking an update. “We need them as soon as possible so that we can get them posted,” McGowan wrote.

Beck responded that they still needed approval. "WH principals are in touch with the task force so the task force should be aware of status.”

The next day McGowan checked with Beck again. “I have no word on revisions yet for the rest of the package. My understanding is it is still being reviewed,” she responded.

One of Beck’s colleagues, Satya P. Thallam, followed up saying the White House Principal's Committee had not yet responded. "However, I am passing along their message: they have given strict and explicit direction that these documents are not yet cleared and cannot go out as of right now — this includes related press statements or other communications that may preview content or timing of guidances.”

McGowan responded that White House changes would cause further delay.

“The comments and edits we get back will have to be reviewed at the CDC for scientific accuracy,” McGowan responded to Thallam and Beck. “We will not be able to post the document we get back from the WH quickly if there are a substantial number of edits."

On April 30, one day before Trump's May 1 reopening goal, McGowan was told guidelines will “never see the light of day," according to three sources inside CDC who were not authorized to publicly discuss the matter and spoke on condition of anonymity.

In her letter, Cantwell said the emails raise "serious questions about whether you believe in preserving and respecting the scientific and professional integrity of scientists and health professionals that work at agencies like the CDC and the CPSC.”

On Thursday, another committee Democrat cited AP's story in calling on the administration to withdraw Beck's nomination.

“Nancy Beck reportedly led efforts to thwart CDC’s science-based guidance for protecting public health — exactly the wrong credential for a nominee to lead the CPSC, and clear reason her nomination should be withdrawn," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.

An OMB spokesperson said the initial submission to the office was the “start of the deliberative process, not the end, and everyone knows that," and added the White House appreciated that Beck continued “serving her country by helping the government respond to this pandemic while her nomination was pending.”

Before joining the Trump administration, Beck was a senior director for policy at the American Chemistry Council, the primary lobbying arm for U.S. chemical manufacturers. In that role, she frequently testified on Capitol Hill against stricter safeguards to protect human health and the environment from toxins.

In 2017, she joined the Environmental Protection Agency as a top official in the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention. She oversaw efforts to block or weaken Obama-era regulations on harmful substances including asbestos, and at the White House was involved in a rewrite of limits on PFAS. Those are class of chemicals used in making nonstick cooking pans and raincoats, and the chemicals have been linked to birth defects.

Democrats and environmentalists have opposed her nomination to lead the consumer agency. While she awaits Senate confirmation, Beck has been assigned to the White House Council of Economic Advisers, which consults with the president on matters of economic policy.

On May 7, the day AP ran a story about the administration shelving the guidance, McGowan emailed Beck and copied Redfield.

“When can we expect OMB comments on the rest of the guidance? We would really like to get these moving," he wrote.

Late that afternoon, the White House called the CDC and told the agency to resend a series of detailed “decision trees” that had been shelved. Emails showed staff working on the guidance said they would “stand down.”

At a Senate hearing Tuesday on the coronavirus, Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., asked Redfield about the status of that guidance. Redfield replied: “Soon.”

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Dearen reported from Gainesville, Florida. Associated Press writer Zeke Miller contributed to this report.

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Follow AP investigative reporters Jason Dearen at http://twitter.com/JHDearen and Michael Biesecker at http://twitter.com/mbieseck