Michael Caputo, a former Trump campaign official who took over as top spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services earlier this year, will take a 60-day leave of absence, HHS announced Wednesday.
The move comes after Caputo, who led the agency’s communications on the coronavirus pandemic, reportedly said in a now-deleted video posted Sunday on his personal Facebook page that scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were engaged in “sedition” against President Donald Trump.
In Caputo’s streamed remarks on Sunday, he said there is a “resistance unit” within the CDC, adding that scientists at the agency “haven’t gotten out of their sweatpants except for meetings at coffee shops” to plot “how they’re going to attack Donald Trump next,” The New York Times reported.
When asked about Caputo’s comments on Wednesday, CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield said they “deeply saddened” him.
HHS also announced that Paul Alexander, an advisor to Caputo who was working for the agency on a temporary basis, “will be leaving the department.”
In a statement obtained by CNBC, Caputo said he will use the leave of absence “to pursue necessary screenings for a lymphatic issue discovered last week.”
Caputo added that he has been losing weight for months and had delayed seeing his doctor. He also said “violent threats leveled at me and my family back in Buffalo” have contributed to his stress levels. In the statement, he thanked Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, for conferring with Caputo’s personal physician.
“But every American battling COVID — in every city in every state across the nation — has been under enormous pressure. I am just one of them,” he said. “Our family is blessed. We urge all Americans to see their family doctor for the healthcare they need but have missed for months during this crisis. Do it today.”
Both Alexander and Caputo have been at the center of recent reports over alleged political meddling within the CDC. Last week, multiple outlets reported that Caputo and Alexander were interfering with internal CDC affairs, including the publication of the agency’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports. Those serve as the main channel through which the CDC communicates with physicians and public health specialists across the country.
When reached for comment about the reports, Caputo said last week in a statement to CNBC that “our intention is to make sure that evidence, science-based data drives policy through this pandemic — not ulterior deep state motives in the bowels of CDC.”
Caputo also defended Alexander, a part-time university lecturer from McMaster University in Canada, saying that he “is an Oxford educated epidemiologist” and that “he has been encouraged to share his opinions with other scientists.”
Politico reported last week that Alexander had also been trying to control what Fauci, a White House coronavirus advisor, said in media appearances. When asked about the report last week, Fauci said any attempt to control what he says is a “fool’s errand.”
“Anybody that tries to tell me what to say publicly, if they know anything about me, realize that’s a fool’s errand,” he said. “No one is ever going to pressure me or muzzle me to say anything publicly, so whoever that person was that wrote that memo, it was a waste of an email.”
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters Wednesday she is “not going to weigh into any personnel matters.”
Ryan Murphy will take over the day-to-day operations as chief spokesman for HHS while Caputo is on leave, the agency said.
The internal shake-up comes after Democratic lawmakers launched an investigation earlier this week into alleged political interference at the CDC by Trump appointees.
The Democrats said in a letter to HHS Secretary Alex Azar and Redfield that they seek “to determine the scope of political interference with CDC’s scientific reports and other efforts to combat the pandemic, the impact of this interference on CDC’s mission, whether this interference is continuing, and the steps that Congress may need to take to stop it before more Americans die needlessly.”
Caputo was named in the letter.
Also earlier this week, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer called for Azar to resign, citing “chaos and mismanagement in his own agency.”
Read the full statement from HHS below:
“Today, the Department of Health and Human Services is announcing that HHS Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Michael Caputo has decided to take a leave of absence to focus on his health and the well-being of his family. Mr. Caputo will be on leave for the next 60 days.
Dr. Paul Alexander, Senior Policy Advisor to the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs, was hired to engage with the department on a temporary basis. Dr. Alexander will be leaving the department.
Ryan Murphy, as the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs, will lead the day-to-day operations of the office during this time. Mr. Murphy has previously served as Acting Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs.”