Controversial HHS official taking medical leave

Caputo and a colleague, who is leaving the Trump administration, pressured CDC

Michael Caputo, shown in 2018, is taking a leave of absence from the Health and Human Services Department. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Michael Caputo, shown in 2018, is taking a leave of absence from the Health and Human Services Department. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Posted September 16, 2020 at 2:15pm

The Department of Health and Human Services announced that Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Michael Caputo will take a 60-day medical leave of absence, following a torrid five-month stint that included efforts to downplay the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Caputo's tenure was capped by a livestreamed Facebook video echoing right-wing conspiracies depicting department scientists as leftists and predicting societal revolts.

HHS said in a statement Caputo decided to take the absence "to focus on his health and the well-being of his family." Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Ryan Murphy will fill the role in the meantime.

His Facebook Live comments on Sunday coincided with additional revelations that he and an aide, Paul Alexander, attempted to interfere with reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Reports emerged that his staff tried to make the findings reflect more favorably on the Trump administration’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the video, Caputo noted the toll the pandemic was taking on his mental health, in addition to ongoing stress from his entanglement in Robert Mueller's Russia investigation.

HHS said Alexander would permanently leave his role, which the agency said he was hired to fill on a temporary basis. 

Caputo told viewers on Sunday that his "mental health is definitely failing," lamenting media attacks but promising that "'I'm not going anywhere." 

"I don't like being alone in Washington," he said. "The shadows on the ceiling in my apartment, there alone, those shadows are so long."

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He also labeled CDC scientists as seditionists and peddled a conspiracy theory about a potential armed insurgency against President Donald Trump. He deleted his Facebook and personal Twitter accounts shortly thereafter.

Caputo was installed in April by the White House following a public feud between HHS Secretary Alex Azar and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma. His caustic attacks stood in stark contrast to the approach of his predecessors, but were meant to unite the department's political message and align with that of the White House.

His lack of health care experience was unimportant at first, given his political mandate, but became critical once the COVID-19 pandemic consumed the administration's agenda. 

"You hired a bulldog," an administration official told CQ Roll Call. "And so now you have this bulldog. The role has changed but the person hasn't."

Caputo's hiring couldn’t have come at a more delicate time for HHS, which has been under constant fire while leading the response to a pathogen that has crippled the world and killed nearly 200,000 Americans. Serious concerns about political interference with the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration has undermined trust in an eventual vaccine, with Trump repeatedly making comments contradicting health experts and accusing government scientists of deep state conspiracies.

HHS recently launched a $250 million vaccine ad campaign to boost public trust — with Caputo in charge.

The fallout is tainting Azar as well. On Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., called for Azar's resignation, citing what he called weak leadership.

"It has become abundantly clear that the leadership of the Department of Health and Human Services has allowed perhaps the most important federal agency right now to become subservient to the president's daily whims," Schumer said on the Senate floor.

Caputo's inflammatory reputation preceded his appointment. He continually made racist and sexist insults as a political operative and radio host, and launched aggressive counterattacks against negative media coverage and myriad critics on Twitter in his HHS role. 

"I'm Effective," he tweeted after reports about his interference at CDC. "Get used to it."