Wagner was also involved in the agency’s rollout of blood plasma as a coronavirus treatment, an episode that eventually led FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn to apologize for making claims that overestimated the benefits of the treatment. Caputo this month assigned Wagner to work in the department’s emergency and response agency for efforts to rush a coronavirus vaccine.
Meanwhile, he punctured the CDC with an ongoing feud with the agency by helping to install the agency’s new chief communications officer in June with little notice to the agency’s senior team.
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But the Caputo aide who attracted the most controversy was Paul Alexander, an unpaid part-time professor at McMaster University. Alexander, whose departure was heavily reported by HHS along with Caputo’s medical leave, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Performed as Caputo’s science assistant in a newly created role this spring, Alexander spent months on standby by government researchers and tried to edit scientific bulletins written by the Centers for Disease Control, the agency’s famous disease and mortality weekly reports or MMWRs, POLITICO reported early Friday.
In emails, Alexander attacked CDC researchers for trying to “harm the president” by allegedly skewing their bulletins and trying to undermine Trump’s optimistic message about the pandemic. The behavior was a habit for Alexander: last week he tried to prevent infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci from discussing the risk of coronavirus in children, and the Washington Post reported in July on Alexander’s previous efforts to empty CDC officials.
But Alexander had a strong protector – Caputo, who shared his adviser’s belief that a “deep state” inside the government was working to harm Trump before the election.
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After Friday’s POLITICO report, Caputo found himself in a new position: rather than correct the story, Caputo was the story.
Prominent public health experts rejected his team’s efforts to change carefully controlled, strictly impartial scientific texts.
The MMWRs are “required reading, especially during a pandemic,” wrote Rich Besser, executive director of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and former acting head of the CDC, in Scientific American. “Interfering with, delaying or politicizing these reports would be a form of scientific blasphemy as well as a breach of public trust that could undermine the nation’s efforts to fight coronavirus.”
Meanwhile, career officials within HHS were appalled that their work could be distorted by a career political consultant seeking to protect the president.
Even some Trump nominees who privately admired Caputo’s style – praising his efforts to spar with critics of the administration and attack the media – felt he had gone too far in trying to edit scientific documents.
“This guy’s problem is that he does not know where the red line is,” said a senior official who believed some of Caputo’s hardball tactics were justified. “Or maybe he sees the red line and he’s like a bull he charges for it.”
Besieged by critics and behind a personal health concern, Caputo struck a defiant tone in a Facebook live video he shared with friends Sunday night, first reported by The New York Times.
“I’m not going anywhere,” Caputo said in the video. “Do you know why? Because the President of the United States supports me.”
But the video turned into conspiracy thinking – as Caputo spotted theories about “hit squads” organized by Trump opponents and urged militants to stockpile ammunition in the event of a controversial election – and featured expanded riffs about Caputo’s frustrations over Washington, DC. top spokesman also filed more than a dozen attacks on the researchers, whose work he was nominally hired to promote.
“These researchers at the Centers for Disease Control, some of them have rotted from the brain out,” Caputo said. “They are working against Donald Trump as researchers.”
“There are scientists working for this government who do not want America to get well,” Caputo said later in the nearly 30-minute video. “Only after Joe Biden is president. That’s a fact. I know because I heard it … these people are all going to hell.”
On Monday, a subcommittee on house surveillance opened an inquiry into Caputo’s efforts to interfere with the CDC’s reports and requested that he, Alexander and other HHS officials submit for interviews next week.
Senior Democrats also called on Caputo to resign, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer on Tuesday demanded that Azar himself resign to let Caputo and his team pressure government researchers, including criticism. Meanwhile, several media outlets have dug into Caputo’s role in HHS, including his hometown newspaper, which found his administration lacking.
“Caputo’s ideas for managing a health crisis need to be laid out on pastures,” Buffalo News wrote in an editorial Tuesday urging him to resign immediately.
Amid the firestorm, Caputo weighed a potential departure from HHS, in consultation with Azar and other senior officials Tuesday on the logistics of a medical leave, four people said close to the situation. Some White House officials also began to conclude that Caputo had become a distraction and needed to travel – whether it was medical leave or otherwise.
McMaster University also tried to distance itself from Alexander with a spokesman saying he is not currently teaching at the university, nor has he been paid as a part-time assistant.
By Wednesday afternoon, the situation had become untenable, and HHS announced that Caputo was taking a 60-day medical absence. The spokesman’s exit potentially equates one of Trump’s most devoted allies in government at a particularly sensitive time: the election is 48 days away.
HHS also said Alexander left the department, although he did not provide further details.
Caputo himself spun his departure as a necessary step for his health, in a statement praising Fauci, saying he would have consulted Trump and Azar about his next move and needed to continue screenings for a newly discovered lymph problem.
“[E]much American struggle against COVID – in every city in every state across the nation – has been under enormous pressure. “I’m just one of them,” Caputo said. I’ve learned so much in friendship with the doctors in the President’s Coronavirus Task Force. “