The White House told House Democrats on Monday that their requests for testimony from two key members of the administration’s COVID-19 task force would be denied, a move that adds to the list of officials who have been blocked from speaking under oath about the federal response to the pandemic.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee had asked the administration for testimony from Alex Azar, the Department of Health and Human Services Secretary, and Seema Verma, the director of the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Two sources, including a Democratic spokesperson for the committee, confirmed to The Daily Beast that their requests were rejected Monday.
Last week, the White House blocked Dr. Anthony Fauci, the administration’s foremost infectious disease expert, from testifying before House Democrats, though Fauci still is set to appear before a Senate panel run by Republicans. Trump spokespeople defended the decision by saying it would be “counterproductive” to have officials involved in the COVID-19 response to appear at congressional hearings because they are too lengthy.
A senior administration official told The Daily Beast that the task force has been working “non-stop” since the beginning of the outbreak and has conducted numerous public briefings. “I don’t think anyone can reasonably say we aren’t being transparent,” the official said.
President Donald Trump himself had a different explanation. “The House is a set up,” he told reporters on Tuesday morning from the White House lawn en route to Arizona. “The House is a bunch of Trump haters.”
That outlook was formalized in a new White House policy that began circulating among officials on Monday. It instructed members of the coronavirus task force that they would not be permitted to testify in Congress without the approval of White House chief of staff Mark Meadows.
Though the White House has said that Fauci and other key officials will be able to testify freely in the future, the rationale for blocking their appearances—and the opportunity for candid exchange with lawmakers under oath—during a critical moment in the COVID-19 response has struck Democrats as another example of stonewalling from an administration accustomed to brushing off their oversight requests. The blocking of testimony from Azar, a cabinet official, seems likely to inflame tensions even further.
On Monday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said that the White House’s move was “business as usual” from the Trump administration and said that lawmakers needed the latest information from task force officials to inform their legislative response to the virus.
“The fact is that we need to allocate resources for this,” said Pelosi. “In order to do that, any appropriations bill must begin in the House. And we have to have the information to act upon.”
Azar, the embattled chief of HHS, has faced criticism over missteps in the agency’s COVID response, particularly the lack of testing availability early on in the outbreak. He has not testified publicly since March 12. Verma, who oversees the government’s two biggest and most expensive health care programs, has not testified publicly since the COVID-19 outbreak began.
— with reporting by Sam Stein