If there’s one thing President Trump has been very consistent about during his administration, it is the constant appointment of people who's views suggest their ideas are at odds of the agency's mission.
Earlier this month, his nomination of Peter Wright, a Dow Chemicals lawyer, to head an Environmental Protection Agency unit certainly raised some eyebrows. And now, he has appointed Robert Redfield — a man with a somewhat shady history that includes fraud charges and supporting stigma-inducing HIV/AIDS policies — to act as director of the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), our nation’s highest authority on public health.
This head position at the CDC has been vacant since Trump’s first appointee, Brenda Fitzgerald, resigned after only half a year, according to the Washington Post. Apparently, Fitzgerald had some “complex financial interests” that may have been in conflict with her position (i.e., she purchased shares in a tobacco company shortly after becoming CDC director), according to a statement from the Health and Human Services Department.
Though many publications, along with the Trump administration, are touting Redfield as a top HIV/AIDS researcher, if you dive a little deeper, you’ll see his history in this area is a bit murky. In fact, if you begin to go back and follow Redfield’s controversial career, it becomes increasingly unclear if he is an advocate or enemy to those living with HIV.
For starters, Redfield is an avid Catholic, and much of his work around HIV/AIDS has been trying to infuse Christianity into related policies. He has had a decades-long, close relationship with Children’s AIDS Fund International (CAFI)—which sounds like a good thing, but advocates say such Christian-based organizations such as CAFI often have a detrimental effect on the fight against HIV.
CAFI actually started out as “Americans for a Sound AIDS Policy,” founded and led by ultra-right, conservative, anti-gay activists Shepherd and Anita Smith. The group infamously promoted abstinence rather than condom use, and campaigned against including those living with HIV in the Americans With Disabilities Act, which would have protected them from discrimination, notes Laura Flanders in her book, The W Effect: Bush’s War on Women.
Though his many years dedicated to HIV/AIDS research would lead many to believe Redfield is an HIV advocate, his foray into this field seems to be rooted in fear — and in a desire to ostracize those living with the condition.
In addition to some messy fraud charges in the ‘90s brought against Redfield by the U.S. Army over a failed HIV vaccine, he was also a strong supporter of mandatory patient testing for HIV during the 1980s (and later pushed for mandatory testing of health care workers). The researcher again clashed with advocates over whether to collect the names of those who tested positive, rather than using anonymous identifying codes, according to a 2002 report in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, when he was a candidate being considered for the CDC director under President George W. Bush.
Jeffrey Levi — who was the executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and director of the Office of National AIDS Policy during the Clinton Administration — remembers Redfield’s policy initiatives well.
“The controversy in the 1980s was that some of the policies he advocated and some of the organizations he was associated with were not embracing sound public health approaches to the AIDS epidemic and were stigmatizing of those who were infected,” Levi told the Post.
“The context that people have to remember is that during this time, people could be fired for having HIV; they could lose their health insurance for having HIV,” he said. “That’s why there was so much furor.”