The health department’s topspokesperson Michael Caputo called an emergency staff meeting on Tuesday to apologize for drawing negative attention to the Trump administration’s health care strategy and signaled that he might be soon departing his role,according to five people with knowledge of the meeting.
The departure of Caputo, who has closely controlled the health agencies’ dissemination of information about coronavirus, would be a blow to the Trump administration’s efforts to promote a possible vaccine, if one is approved in the fall.
Caputo told staffers that his series of false accusations on Facebook Live this weekend — which included unfounded allegations that the Centers for Disease Control was harboring a “resistance unit” — reflected poorly on HHS’ communications office. He blamed his recent behavior on a combination of physical health issues and the toll of fielding death threats against his family. Caputo also acknowledged that he had never read one of the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports, despite his team’s ongoing efforts to try to edit those documents.
Caputo told staff that he is scheduled to meet with HHS Secretary Alex Azar later Tuesday, the people with knowledge of the meeting said.
President Donald Trump — a close ally of Caputo who helped install him as HHS’ communication head this year — is also expected to be involved in any decision about Caputo’s next steps.
Three people with knowledge of Caputo’s decision-making confirmed that he was mulling stepping aside as the department’s assistant secretary for public affairs to take medical leave. One former HHS official told POLITICO that Caputo, a former Trump campaign official, has long complained of the stress caused by having been mentioned in the special counsel’s investigation on Russian interference in the 2016 election.
During the meeting with his staff on Tuesday, Caputo made allusions to the fact that HHS had functioned for a long time in the past without a permanent top communications official, said one HHS official.
Caputo also disputed anonymous White House criticism about his mental health — saying that some of his comments have been taken out of context — and concluded the meeting by encouraging his staff to listen to music by the Grateful Dead.
HHS declined to comment.
The meeting came in the wake of a tumultuous week for Caputo that has prompted calls from multiple Democrats for his resignation.
On Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer issued a call for Azar’s ouster as well, accusing him of allowing political appointees to interfere with the department’s public health work being “almost entirely silent about the chaos and mismanagement in his own agency.”
Caputo joined HHS as its top communications official earlier this year, in a White House-backed attempt to exert greater control over the health department’s messaging.
But in recent weeks, Caputo has been at the center of multiple episodes of political meddling with the department’s Covid-19 response, including POLITICO reports that he and top adviser Paul Alexander tried to influence key CDC scientific bulletins. Alexander, a personal friend of Caputo who was hired in the spring to be his science adviser, also pushed infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci to downplay the virus’ risk to children.
Alexander’s fate is likely tied to Caputo’s next steps, said one current HHS official. “He’s not someone who would have been hired if Caputo hadn’t brought him in,” said the official, noting that Alexander — a part-time professor at McMaster University in Canada — was an unusual fit in the press shop. “If we need scientific advice, there’s a whole government full of scientists we can call,” the official added.
Caputo had separately clashed with career officials at the Food and Drug Administration after tapping another ally, John “Wolf” Wagner, to head communication at the agency. Wagner was reassigned after just two months in the role, amid criticism from former administration officials and health experts over the politicized messaging coming from the FDA.
Caputo has spent days battling with critics who attacked him and Alexander for pressuring government scientists to shift their messages. In a tweet on Caputo’s since-deleted personal account after the CDC report, he wrote “I’m Effective,” the tweet reads. “Get used to it.” Caputo’s personal account disappeared Monday.
On Sunday, Caputo took to Facebook Live to level a series of wild and false accusations that warned of an armed insurrection after the election and asserted without evidence that public health officials were trying to undermine Trump’s reelection bid.
Several people inside and outside the administration subsequently raised concerns to Azar and the White House about the Facebook Live video.