Health Official to Take Leave of Absence After He Attacked Federal Scientists
WASHINGTON — Michael R. Caputo, the embattled top spokesman of the Department of Health and Human Services, will take a leave of absence “to focus on his health and the well-being of his family,” the department announced on Wednesday, three days after Mr. Caputo accused federal scientists of “sedition.”
A science adviser Mr. Caputo hired to help him, Dr. Paul Alexander, will be leaving the department.
The announcement came after Mr. Caputo posted a bizarre and inflammatory Facebook video in which he accused government scientists of working to defeat President Trump and urged his followers to buy ammunition ahead of what he predicted would be an armed insurrection after the election.
It also followed disclosures over the weekend that he and Dr. Alexander had tried to water down or delay official reports of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to bolster Mr. Trump’s message that the pandemic is under control.
Mr. Caputo, a Trump loyalist installed by the White House in April as the assistant secretary of health for public affairs, apologized on Tuesday to his staff and to Alex M. Azar II, the department’s leader, for his Facebook soliloquy. Among other things, he spoke to his followers of his declining mental health and his fear that he might be killed by an anti-administration zealot.
In a statement, Mr. Caputo said he was pursuing “necessary screenings for a lymphatic issue discovered last week.” He said his health concerns “contributed to my stress level, along with the increasing number of violent threats leveled at me and my family.”
Since his arrival at the department, Mr. Caputo, a former Trump campaign aide, had worked aggressively to develop a media strategy on the pandemic. But critics, including some within the administration, complained that he was promoting the president’s political interests over public health.
His Facebook talk, which The New York Times disclosed on Monday, was filled with ominous references to the postelection period, when he said there would be a standoff over who won the White House and “the shooting will begin.” Although he praised Dr. Robert R. Redfield, the C.D.C.’s director, as a close friend, he was contemptuous of the agency’s scientists.
He said they had formed a “resistance unit” determined to undercut Mr. Trump, accused them of “rotten science” and said “they haven’t gotten out of their sweatpants” except to plot against the president at coffee shops.
Dr. Redfield, appearing Wednesday at a Senate hearing, said he was “deeply saddened” by Mr. Caputo’s attacks on C.D.C. scientists, calling them “false” and offensive. “The C.D.C. is made up of thousands of dedicated men and women, highly competent,” he said. “It is the premier public health agency in the world.”
Mr. Caputo, in his Facebook video, also said his mental health was failing, he was under siege by the media and he might end up being killed because of his government role. He defended Dr. Alexander as “a genius,” saying the public criticism of his aide’s actions had only served to solidify his role at the health department.
“They will not move me,” he said. “I’m not going anywhere. You know why? Because the president of the United States supports me. And what I’m doing is good for you and good for your family.”
Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, dodged a reporter’s question Wednesday about whether the administration would welcome Mr. Caputo back after his leave ends about two weeks after the November election. “I’m not going to weigh into any personnel matters,” she said.
Several high-ranking Democrats this week called for Mr. Caputo’s firing, including Senator Patty Murray of Washington, the ranking Democrat on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and Representative Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, who leads a subcommittee that controls funding of health programs.
Ryan Murphy, a communications official at the Health and Human Services Department, will fill in for Mr. Caputo, the agency said. Mr. Murphy held the position before the White House dispatched Mr. Caputo to the department in an effort to more carefully monitor and shape what its officials told the media.
Mr. Caputo’s influence was underscored on Wednesday by Dr. Redfield, who told a Senate appropriations subcommittee that the White House Office of Management and Budget and the health department had ordered him to transfer $300 million from his agency’s budget to the department. Of that, $250 million was to be spent on a public-relations campaign directed by Mr. Caputo, a senior health department official said.
Dr. Redfield said that the C.D.C. had not been consulted on the substance of the program. “I would assume that they would want our instruction to do all of that, but we haven’t been involved in this,” he said.
Mr. Caputo told his Facebook audience that the campaign was intended “to bring America back.” He also said that the program “was demanded of me by the president of the United States, personally.”
He insisted to his followers that he was only doing what members of Congress had requested. But in a Sept. 10 letter, three House Democrats who lead key oversight panels asked Mr. Azar to suspend the contract and demanded to see the contract file. They questioned whether the project was merely “a political propaganda campaign,” saying contract documents apparently showed that the purpose was to help “defeat despair and inspire hope” and “instill confidence to return to work and restart the economy.”
The letter was signed by Representatives James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, Carolyn B. Maloney of New York and Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois.
Mr. Caputo has said he planned public advertisements to increase minority enrollment in clinical vaccine trials and solicit donors of convalescent plasma so more coronavirus patients could benefit from the treatment.
He also envisioned public messages urging Americans to get the flu vaccine and a coronavirus vaccine, should one be approved. Many public health experts have urged such a public campaign.
The contract was awarded on Sept. 1 to the Fors Marsh Group, a Northern Virginia research firm. Mr. Caputo had “nothing to do with the decision,” said Mark Weber, a department spokesman, adding that it was competitively bid and awarded by a panel of career federal officials.
“This work will be informed by a departmentwide team of experts who will review campaign materials and messaging and ensure the latest scientific information is used to provide important public health, therapeutic and vaccine information,” he said.
Some of the funds have already been spent on public service announcements by Dr. Jerome Adams, the surgeon general, encouraging Americans to wash their hands, wear masks and socially distance, Mr. Weber said. Most of the funds will be spent after the election, a senior health department official said.
Until Wednesday’s hearing before the Senate subcommittee, it was not clear where the money for Mr. Caputo’s messaging campaign would come from. Adm. Brett P. Giroir, an assistant secretary for health heading national coronavirus testing efforts, testified that he knew nothing about it.
At the same hearing, Dr. Redfield warned that the federal government needed more money for a nationwide vaccine distribution plan, which he said would cost $5.5 billion to $6 billion.
“It’s as urgent as getting these manufacturing facilities up,” he said.
Ms. Murray grilled Dr. Redfield over whether Mr. Caputo and Dr. Alexander had manipulated the content of the C.D.C.’s health bulletins, known as Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports or M.M.W.R.s. Previously, those reports were carefully shielded from political influence and highly regarded internationally for their importance and accuracy.
The senator said it was “dangerous and unprecedented that political appointees are editing, censoring and ultimately undermining a report that is intended to give families, public health professionals, researchers and health care providers what they need: the truth.”
Dr. Redfield replied, “The scientific integrity of the M.M.W.R. has not been compromised and will not be compromised on my watch.” He insisted that the C.D.C. was “not going to let political influence try to modulate” its public health advice.
Dr. Redfield strained to defend what a growing number of critics view as a hobbled C.D.C. In the early stages of the pandemic, public health officials and experts were sharply critical of what they said were delays and missteps in the agency’s response efforts. The C.D.C. now faces mounting complaints that it has allowed the White House and its emissaries to twist the agency’s messages about the pandemic.
Sheryl Gay Stolberg contributed reporting.