Health and Human Servies official Michael Caputo, who has been accused of trying to manipulate COVID-19 data for political purposes, apologized for espousing conspiracy theories according to multiple media reports.
Without offering evidence, Caputo, assistant secretary of public affairs at HHS, accused scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) of “sedition” and falsely claimed they had formed a “resistance unit” against President Donald Trump, according to The New York Times. The Times first reported the contents of the video stream on Caputo’s Facebook page, which has since been made private. Caputo later related what he said in the video to The Washington Post and CNN.
Politico reported that Caputo called an emergency staff meeting on Tuesday to apologize for embarrassing HHS Secretary Alex Azar and the agency, while also drawing negative attention to the administration’s health care strategy.
According to New York Times, Caputo also signaled he might be departing his role soon.
Caputo also was criticized for predicting Trump will win reelection but claimed his Democratic challenger Joe Biden would refuse to concede and warned his Facebook followers to prepare for violence.
“And when Donald Trump refuses to stand down at the inauguration, the shooting will begin,” he said, according to the Times. “If you carry guns, buy ammunition, ladies and gentlemen, because it’s going to be hard to get.”
Concerns about Election Day chaos have been expressed by both Democrats and Republicans, including fears of violent partisan clashes on America’s streets. Trump has repeatedly declared, without evidence, that the only way Biden can win is if Democrats “rig” or “steal” the election. Those claims have fueled fears Trump will refuse to concede the election.
Trump appointed Caputo – a longtime friend and Republican political operative, with no health care experience, who worked on his 2016 campaign – to HHS in April as daily deaths in the U.S. from the coronavirus peaked.
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On Friday, Politico first reported Caputo, along with scientific adviser Paul Alexander, pressured CDC officials to alter the agency’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports, which features the latest science-based research and data on infectious diseases. Known as MMWR, the report has long been a sacred, non-political government information resource for doctors, scientists and researchers tracking outbreaks.
Current and former CDC officials confirmed Politico’s reporting to the Times. The outlets said Caputo and Alexander pressured the CDC to change the weekly reports, at times retroactively, to better align them with Trump’s public statements about the coronavirus, which repeatedly sought to downplay the severity of the outbreak.
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Health and Human Services (HHS) Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Michael Caputo apologized to Secretary Alex Azar in an emergency meeting Tuesday following comments he made accusing career government scientists of plotting against President Trump.
Caputo reportedly expressed regret for embarrassing Azar and the agency at large for saying, among other things, that “there are scientists who work for this government who do not want America to get well, not until after [Democratic presidential nominee] Joe Biden is president.”
According to an HHS official who confirmed the meeting to The Hill, Caputo also said some of his comments have been taken out of context and recommended his staff to listen to music by the Grateful Dead.
News of the meeting comes after Caputo, during a Facebook Live session on Sunday, alleged that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was harboring a “resistance unit,” according to the New York Times. Scientists that worked for the agency, he alleged, “haven’t gotten out of their sweatpants except for meetings at coffee shops” to plot “how they’re going to attack Donald Trump.”
His comments came after a report from Politico published Friday said that top HHS appointees had been interfering in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports (MMWR) on the coronavirus pandemic. House Democrats have launched a probe into the alleged interference.
Multiple outlets have also reported that during the Tuesday meeting, Caputo admitted to staffers that he has never read the CDC’s reports, though his team has allegedly tried to make edits to those documents.
Echoing comments Trump has made about public health officials, Caputo said researchers “deep in the bowels of the C.D.C. have given up science and become political animals.”
He added they “haven’t gotten out of their sweatpants except for meetings at coffee shops” to plan “how they’re going to attack Donald Trump next,” according to the Times. “There are scientists who work for this government who do not want America to get well, not until after Joe Biden is president.”
Caputo’s comments in the Facebook video came amid backlash over the reports but he said he had Trump’s support and vowed to persist in the face of the criticism.
“I’m not going anywhere,” he said, according to the Times. “I swear to God, as God is my witness, I am not stopping.”
“You understand that they’re going to have to kill me, and unfortunately, I think that’s where this is going,” he reportedly said.
On Monday, the Democratic-led House Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis launched an investigation into Caputo’s alleged interference at the CDC.
“With nearly 200,000 Americans killed and hundreds more dying each day from the
coronavirus pandemic, the public needs and deserves truthful scientific information so they can keep themselves and their families healthy,” the Democratic subcommittee members wrote in a letter to HHS Secretary Alex Azar and CDC Director Robert Redfield. “We are gravely concerned by reports showing that the President’s political appointees at HHS have sought to help him downplay the risks of the coronavirus crisis by attempting to alter, delay, and block critical scientific reports from CDC.”
In a statement on Monday, HHS said, “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.”
Caputo is no stranger to controversy. Shortly after his HHS appointment in April, CNN reported on multiple controversial tweets, which have since been deleted, posted on Caputo’s account. In the tweets, he repeatedly accused Democrats and the news media of hyping the coronavirus to hurt Trump politically.
“Coronavirus is the Democrats’ new Russia, their new Ukraine. And nobody will believe them except their zombies. But know this: The Dems’ strategy to defeat @realDonaldTrump requires 100s of thousands of American deaths,” he tweeted on March 8.
“For the Democrat 2020 victory strategy to work, 100,000+ Americans have to die. For the Democrat 2020 victory strategy to work, you have to believe the media. Media literacy is more vital now than ever. Question everything,” he tweeted three days later.
Caputo lived and worked as a public relations consultant in Russia in the 1990s and, after returning to America, he was hired to help improve Russian President Vladimir Putin’s image in the U.S.
Caputo was among the Trump campaign officials scrutinized in former special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into potential collusion between the campaign and Russian officials who tried to sway the 2016 election. Caputo helped arrange a meeting between Trump ally Roger Stone and a Russian-born businessman offering dirt on Clinton, according to Mueller’s report. Mueller’s team did not establish a connection between that person and the wider Kremlin interference effort.
In a statement on Monday, Caputo said that since joining the Trump administration he and his family “have been continually threatened and in and out of criminal court dealing with harassment prosecutions.”
“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,” he said.
The Times reported that Caputo said in his Facebook video that he felt under siege by critics. In addition to taking a physical toll, he said his “mental health has definitely failed.”
Contributing: Savannah Behrmann, Elizabeth Weise and Karen Weintraub, USA TODAY; The Associated Press
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