The Department of Health and Human Services has announced that Michael Caputo, its head of communications, will take a 60-day leave of absence “to focus on his health and the well-being of his family,” days after posting a dark, conspiracy-laden video on Facebook in which he accused CDC scientists of plotting to undermine President Trump. Dr. Paul Alexander, a Caputo ally who had tried to control Anthony Fauci’s public statements and meddle with key CDC data, is departing the agency altogether, HHS announced.
On Tuesday, Caputo called an emergency staff meeting to apologize for his behavior. According to five people with knowledge of the meeting who spoke with Politico, he suggested that he might soon be leaving his role at HHS and blamed the outburst on his physical-health issues and the stress of fielding the aforementioned threats of violence against his family. Politico also reports that Caputo “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.” He ended the meeting by encouraging his staff to listen to the Grateful Dead.
Caputo had spent the weekend defending his efforts to alter the CDC’s weekly COVID-19 reports in order to protect the president politically — a defense that included baselessly claiming that scientists at the agency were deep-state agitators bent on taking down the president. The meddling and Caputo’s attacks prompted widespread outrage from infectious-disease and public-health experts. Then, on Sunday, according to the New York Times, Caputo’s paranoid allegations went even further off the deep end.
In a video he posted to his personal Facebook page, Caputo decried the negative attention he was receiving; insisted, “I am not going anywhere”; and claimed that scientists “deep in the bowels of the CDC have given up science and become political animals” who “haven’t gotten out of their sweatpants except for meetings at coffee shops” to plot “how they’re going to attack Donald Trump.” The Times reports that Caputo said the agency “was riddled with anti-Trump researchers who ‘walk around like they are monks’ and ‘holy men’ but engage in ‘rotten science.’”
The political operative, who has no background in health care or science, accused the CDC scientists of “sedition” and made the outrageous allegation — again without any evidence, because there isn’t any — that the scientists were deliberately acting against the country’s public health as a “resistance unit” within the agency.
“There are scientists who work for this government who do not want America to get well, not until after Joe Biden is president,” Caputo reportedly warned, adding that, “to allow people to die so that you can replace the president is a grievous venial sin, venial sin. And these people are all going to hell.”
Furthermore, Caputo predicted an armed insurrection against President Trump, suggesting he himself might become a target and casualty. “You understand that they’re going to have to kill me, and unfortunately, I think that’s where this is going,” the 58-year-old told his Facebook followers, also noting that his “mental health has definitely failed”:
“I don’t like being alone in Washington,” he said, describing “shadows on the ceiling in my apartment, there alone, shadows are so long.” He then built a crescendo of conspiracy theories, culminating in a prediction that Mr. Trump will win re-election but his Democratic opponent, Joseph R. Biden Jr., will refuse to concede.
“And when Donald Trump refuses to stand down at the inauguration, the shooting will begin,” he said. “The drills that you’ve seen are nothing.” He added: “If you carry guns, buy ammunition, ladies and gentlemen, because it’s going to be hard to get.”
Caputo also endorsed the baseless conspiracy theory that left-wing groups like antifa were already plotting a revolt and targeting Trump supporters, citing the recent shooting of a far-right activist and Trump supporter by an antifa supporter at a rally in Portland, Oregon:
“Remember the Trump supporter who was shot and killed?” he said. “That was a drill.”
The man suspected of the shooting, Michael Forest Reinoehl, was later shot dead by officers from a federally led fugitive task force in Washington State. He “went down fighting,” Mr. Caputo said. “Why? Because he couldn’t say what he had inside him.” He then spoke of “squads being trained all over this country” — a conspiracy theory unsupported by evidence.
In response to the story about Caputo’s comments, HHS sent a statement to the Times insisting that “Mr. Caputo is a critical, integral part of the president’s coronavirus response, leading on public messaging as Americans need public health information to defeat the Covid-19 pandemic.” In his own response, Caputo claimed that “since joining the administration my family and I have been continually threatened” by people who have later been prosecuted. “This weighs heavily on us, and we deeply appreciate the friendship and support of President Trump as we address these matters and keep our children safe.”
Speaking later with the Washington Post, Caputo claimed his daughters had been harassed and that he had been confronted by a stranger on Sunday:
He said he spoke about being in personal danger on the Facebook Live video because a car had stopped in front of his Buffalo-area home, where he was shooting the video, and a man rolled the car window down and twice yelled profanities and threatened his life. Since Caputo has been in the HHS job, he said, his two young daughters, now 6 and 8, have been harassed constantly. One man is being prosecuted for yelling profanities at them when they were playing outside, he said. The Post could not immediately confirm that case.
The embattled Trump aide also appears to have taken down his Twitter account. Meanwhile, per the Post, White House officials are now speaking up, anonymously, about Caputo, his job security, and the circumstances of his appointment to HHS:
Trump installed Caputo in April after weighing whether to fire Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar over a series of damaging stories about Trump’s handling of the pandemic, according to three current and former White House officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe behind-the-scenes discussions. Allies persuaded Trump to not make such a change amid a pandemic, but instead to bring in Caputo, the officials said. …
Caputo is viewed as a Trump loyalist, but several White House officials said his behavior has been erratic and some of his ideas have been regarded as extreme. For example, he proposed the federal government spend millions of dollars on a professionally directed and produced documentary about the administration’s race to develop vaccines that he wanted to air at film festivals, said a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The idea was rejected by White House communications aides.
That erratic behavior is now becoming very public — and a potential liability. According to a White House official who spoke with the Post, there was talk in the administration of demoting or removing Caputo “because of concern that he could damage the administration’s efforts to build public confidence in a prospective coronavirus vaccine.” The official added that the White House has recently bulked up its vaccine messaging team, and encouraged them to make an “end run” around Caputo. Unfortunately, the White House apparently didn’t see the need to empower CDC scientists to do the same.
This post has been updated to include additional reporting.