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The White House Wants to Keep Dr. Fauci, Coronavirus Task Force From Blabbing to Congress

The Trump administration made headlines over the weekend for blocking Dr. Anthony Fauci from testifying before the Democrat-led House this week about the coronavirus—and now, it appears that the move was part of a broader official policy. As the Senate reconvenes and the House continues to mull their official return to Washington, the White House released a memo to Congress Monday saying that members of the coronavirus task force, which includes medical experts such as Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx, would be largely prohibited from participating in congressional hearings for the rest of the month. “For the month of May, no Task Force members, or key deputies … may accept hearing invitations” except if approved by White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, the memo stipulates.

The White House said Monday that other agencies responding to the coronavirus crisis, like the Departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services, may accept hearing invitations, but “agency resources should still be prioritized toward the COVID-19 response.” Hearings involving relevant government agencies are also expected to be capped at four coronavirus-related hearings per department through the end of May. The Trump administration has characterized the hearing limitations as a way to ensure that officials are keeping their eyes on the pandemic response, telling Congress in the memo that it should be expected agency officials will stay away from hearings “to remain focused on implementing of COVID-19 response.” “We need to make sure the task force members have the time they need to focus on the task at hand,” one official told RealClearPolitics, “not on preparing for four-hour hearings several times a week.”

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi criticized the White House’s line of reasoning, however, explaining on CNN Monday that far from being a useless exercise, congressional testimony from top officials is necessary to the House’s pandemic response. “The fact is that we need to allocate resources for this, and in order to do that, any appropriations bill must begin in the House, and we have to have the information to act upon,” Pelosi said. “So the fact that they said, ‘We’re too busy being on TV to come to the Capitol,’ is, well, business as usual for them, but it is not business that will be helpful to addressing this. … We must insist on the truth.” The move to keep task force members off of Capitol Hill is part of a string of decisions made by the White House to hold science and health experts on a tight leash when it comes to talking about the pandemic, raising suspicions about other underlying motivations for the testimony ban beyond the White House’s stated reasoning. Vice President Mike Pence’s office reportedly imposed a rule requiring all science and health officials to coordinate their messaging with the White House in late February, for instance, and the administration briefly banned Fauci, Birx, and other health officials from appearing on CNN after the network refused to air President Donald Trump’s rambling daily briefings in full.

There are already signals that suggest there could be partisan forces at play in the hearing restrictions: Fauci was prohibited from testifying before the Democrat-controlled House, which is tightening its oversight over the administration’s coronavirus response—but Meadows has permitted the medical expert to appear next week before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee led by Republican Senator Lamar Alexander. That contradiction didn’t go unnoticed by Pelosi, who commented on CNN that the White House may be continuing their pattern of stonewalling the Democratic House and their attempt to investigate the Trump administration’s wrongdoing. “I guess Mr. Meadows, being until a week or so ago a member of the House of Representatives, knows that we will be … very, very strictly insisting on the truth,” Pelosi said about the decision to let Fauci testify in the Senate but not the House. “And they might be afraid of the truth.”

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