The top communications official at the powerful Cabinet department in charge of combatting the coronavirus made outlandish and false claims Sunday that career government scientists were engaging in “sedition” in their handling of the pandemic and warned that left-wing hit squads were preparing for armed insurrection after the election.
Michael Caputo, 58, the assistant secretary of public affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services, said without evidence that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was harbouring a “resistance unit” determined to undermine President Donald Trump.
Caputo, who has faced criticism for leading efforts to warp CDC weekly bulletins to fit Trump’s pandemic narrative, suggested that he personally could be in danger.
“You understand that they’re going to have to kill me, and unfortunately, I think that’s where this is going,” Caputo, a Trump loyalist installed by the White House in April, told followers in a video he hosted live on his personal Facebook page. Caputo has 5,000 Facebook friends, and the video has been viewed more than 850 times. It has been shared by 44 followers.
The department said in a statement: “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 said Monday, “Since joining the administration my family and I have been continually threatened” and harassed 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.”
Caputo delivered his broadside against scientists, the media and Democrats after a spate of news reports over the weekend that detailed his team’s systematic interference in the CDC’s official reports on the pandemic and other disease outbreaks. Former and current CDC officials described to Politico, The New York Times and other outlets how Caputo and a top aide routinely demanded the agency revise, delay and even scuttle the CDC’s core public health updates, called Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports, that they believed undercut Trump’s message that the pandemic is under control.
Those reports, deemed “the holiest of the holy” by one former top health official for their international respect and importance, have traditionally been so shielded from political interference that political appointees see them only just before they are published.
Caputo on Sunday complained on Facebook that he was under siege by the media and said that his physical health was in question and 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 ran through a series of conspiracy theories, culminating in a prediction that Trump will win re-election but his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, 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’s installation at the agency was a White House move to assert greater control over Alex Azar, who has been Trump’s secretary of health and human services since 2018. His job is to co-ordinate the messaging of an 80,000-person department that functions as the centre of the U.S. public health bureaucracy and includes the Food and Drug Administration, the CDC and the National Institutes of Health, which lead the government’s pandemic response.
Caputo boasted in his Facebook talk that the president had personally put him in charge of a $250 million public service advertising campaign intended to help America to get back to normal.
Despite the criticism of his team’s interference with the CDC, Caputo said he expected to remain in his post because Trump supported him.
“I’m not going anywhere,” he said. “I swear to God, as God is my witness, I am not stopping.”
His Facebook presentation comes as Trump has increasingly singled out federal government scientists as targets, complaining without evidence that they were deliberately trying to subvert his administration’s efforts to fight the pandemic for their own political reasons.
Caputo echoed those sentiments, saying scientists “deep in the bowels of the CDC have given up science and become political animals.”
They “haven’t gotten out of their sweatpants except for meetings at coffee shops” to plot “how they’re going to attack Donald Trump next,” Caputo said. “There are scientists who work for this government who do not want America to get well, not until after Joe Biden is president.”
The CDC has traditionally been apolitical, serving Republican and Democratic administrations from its headquarters in Atlanta. In recent months, health officials at the CDC and other agencies have increasingly cited political interference from Washington.
Caputo frequently touched on themes of an obstructive “deep state” that the president has used throughout his tenure and during his re-election campaign. Trump has portrayed himself as at war with federal bureaucrats determined to thwart his policies and with radical left-wing activists who he claims are sowing violence in American cities.
Caputo suggested, also without evidence, that the August killing of a Trump supporter in Portland, Oregon, by an avowed supporter of the left-wing collective known as antifa was part of broader left-wing plot to target the administration’s supporters.
“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,” Caputo said. “Why? Because he couldn’t say what he had inside him.” He then spoke of “hit squads being trained all over this country” – a conspiracy theory unsupported by evidence.
Caputo continued his social media effort after the Facebook event, retweeting a conspiratorial post that hinted with no evidence that armed camps were being established in Washington, D.C.: “Occupants don’t look like vagrants. Looks like forward basing for militant street ops,” J. Michael Waller, a conservative provocateur, posted.
Caputo has no background in health care. He worked on Trump’s 2016 campaign for a time but was passed over for a job early in the administration. He remained friendly with Dan Scavino, deputy chief of staff for White House communications who is among the few of Trump’s 2016 campaign aides still on the administration’s staff. Scavino played a role in reconnecting Trump and Caputo. Some of Trump’s allies heralded Caputo’s appointment at Health and Human Services, describing him as both media savvy and intensely loyal to the president.
Caputo, who holds Facebook Live events nearly every Sunday, sounded anguished over the nation’s death toll from COVID-19, warning his friends to wear masks when they attend Trump rallies and to leave if most people there are not. The United States has lost almost 194,000 people to the virus.
“I don’t want to talk about death any more,” he said, adding, “You’re not waking up every morning and talking about dead Americans.”
He accused officials at the CDC and other government agencies – including the Department of Health and Human Services – of deliberately subverting the president’s efforts to contain the pandemic. The CDC, he said, was riddled with anti-Trump researchers who “walk around like they are monks” and “holy men” but engage in “rotten science.”
But he singled out Dr. Robert Redfield, the director of the agency, for praise. He “is one of my closest friends in Washington,” he said. “He’s such a good man.”
Former and current agency officials have asserted that Redfield has allowed so much political interference with the agency’s work that some career scientists are on the verge of resigning.
Caputo was among those who recommended Redfield’s new interim chief of staff. He has also helped install allies in communications jobs in various agencies under the Department of Health and Human Services.
Caputo’s scientific adviser, Dr. Paul Alexander, was heavily involved in the effort to reshape the CDC’s weekly reports on morbidity and mortality. The reports are widely read by the nation’s health professionals, who depend upon them for medical guidance.
Caputo acknowledged in a brief interview last weekend that it was unusual for a public affairs officer to hire his own scientific adviser. But he described Alexander, an assistant professor at McMaster University in Canada, as “a genius” to his Facebook audience, saying the public criticism had only served to make his position “permanent” as a watchdog over politically motivated scientists.
“To allow people to die so that you can replace the president is a grievous venial sin, venial sin,” he said. “And these people are all going to hell.”
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