After it became clear in mid-April that his administration’s response to Covid-19 was threatening his re-election, President Donald Trump considered a leadership shake-up within a health department whose rivalries and battles with the White House had hampered efforts to contain the virus.
Instead, Trump made a different move: He personally intervened to place his campaign aide Michael Caputo — a confidant of disgraced operative Roger Stone who had himself come under scrutiny for his ties to top Russian officials — as assistant Health and Human Services secretary for public affairs. Trump — not HHS Secretary Alex Azar — approached Caputo about the job, and Caputo has repeatedly emphasized that he works for the president, health officials told POLITICO.
Trump’s calculation seemed clear: If he couldn’t easily move aside the health professionals who led the agencies, he could dramatically alter what the public learned about their work on the coronavirus.
Caputo immediately began supplanting career public affairs staff with his own loyalists and Trump veterans – political appointees who often knew little or nothing about health care. They included an old Army buddy to oversee messaging for the Food and Drug Administration, and a former contractor for Medicaid chief Seema Verma to staff the director of the Centers for Disease Control – the two most trusted agencies in a healthier world that had traditionally been insulated from political pressure.
He also plucked an unpaid, part-time professor from obscurity inside a Canadian university to be his science adviser – and used him to challenge and intimidate the scores of highly credentialed scientists in the CDC and other government agencies.
On Wednesday, after POLITICO detailed Caputo’s efforts to interfere with the weekly scientific reports coming out of the CDC and a disastrous rant in which he accused health officials of plotting against Trump, the 58-year-old spokesman announced he was taking a 60-day medical leave. HHS officials are left to assess the damage to their credibility at a time when they need the public to accept the safety and effectiveness of the coronavirus vaccine they choose as soon as next month.
“He is single-handedly blocking the only window that this administration has that light can shine through,” one HHS official said shortly before Caputo’s leave was confirmed, referring to the spokesman’s efforts to block scientifically vetted messaging about coronavirus. “It’s one man.”
But with Caputo out of the picture, it’s not clear that credibility can be restored so quickly.