Wagner was also involved in the agency’s botched introduction of blood plasma as a coronavirus treatment. That episode eventually led FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn to apologize for claiming that the treatment’s benefits were overstated. Caputo reassigned Wagner this month to work in the department’s preparedness and response agency on efforts to expedite a coronavirus vaccine.
Meanwhile, at the CDC, he interrupted an ongoing feud with the agency by helping install the agency’s new top communications officer in June without notifying the agency’s executive team.
That officer ̵
However, Caputo’s most controversial employee was Paul Alexander, an unpaid part-time professor at McMaster University. Alexander, whose departure was narrowly reported by HHS along with Caputo’s medical leave, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Alexander, who was hired in a newly created role as a research fellow at Caputo this spring, spent months berating government scientists and trying to edit scientific bulletins published by the Centers for Disease Control, the famous Weekly Morbidity and Mortality Reports (MMWRs) of the Agency, POLITICO reported for the first time on Friday.
In emails, Alexander attacked CDC scientists for trying to “hurt the president” by allegedly distorting their bulletins and trying to undermine Trump’s optimistic message about the pandemic. The behavior was a habit for Alexander: he tried last week to stop infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci from discussing the risks of the coronavirus for children, and the Washington Post reported in July on Alexander’s previous efforts to punish CDC officials.
But Alexander had a powerful protector – Caputo, who shared his adviser’s belief that a “deep state” within the government was working to harm Trump ahead of the election.
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According to Friday’s POLITICO report, Caputo found himself in a new position: instead of fixing history, Caputo was history.
Prominent public health experts criticized his team’s efforts to change carefully scrutinized, strictly impartial scientific texts.
The MMWRs must be “read, especially during a pandemic,” wrote Rich Besser, CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and former acting director of the CDC, in Scientific American. “Interfering in, delaying, or politicizing these reports would be a form of scientific blasphemy as well as a violation of public trust that could undermine the nation’s efforts to fight the coronavirus.”
Meanwhile, HHS officials were appalled that their work might be skewed by a career political advisor who wanted to protect the president.
Even some Trump officials, who privately admired Caputo’s style and praised his efforts to grapple with critics of the administration and attack the media, felt he had gone too far to edit scientific documents.
“The problem with this guy is that he doesn’t know where the red line is,” said a senior official who believed some of Caputo’s hardball tactics were warranted. “Or maybe he sees the red line and he’s like a cop, he storms over it.”
Caputo has been besieged by critics and followed by a personal health problem. He adopted a defiant tone in a Facebook live video he shared with friends on 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 – as Caputo theorized about “hit teams” organized by opponents of Trump, urging militia members to hold ammunition in the event of a controversial election – and expanded riffs on Caputo’s frustrations with Washington, DC, the Department of Health The top spokesperson also filed more than a dozen attacks on the scientists for whose work he was nominally hired.
“These scientists at the Centers for Disease Control, some of which have rotted off the brain,” Caputo said. “You work as a scientist against Donald Trump.”
“There are scientists who work for this government who don’t want America to get well,” Caputo said later in the nearly 30-minute video. “Not until after Joe Biden is president. It’s a fact. I know because I’ve heard … these people are all going to hell.”
On Monday, a subcommittee on home supervision opened an investigation into Caputo’s efforts to meddle in the CDC’s reports and asked him, Alexander and other HHS officials to come in for interviews next week.
Senior Democrats also called on Caputo to step down, and Chuck Schumer, chairman of the Senate minority, on Tuesday called for Azar himself to step down for allowing Caputo and his team, among other things, to put pressure on government scientists. Meanwhile, several media outlets have been looking into Caputo’s role at HHS, including his home newspaper, which was missing his administration.
“Caputo’s ideas for overcoming a health crisis must be put to the pasture,” Buffalo News wrote in an editorial on Tuesday, calling on him to resign immediately.
Amid the firestorm, Caputo weighed a possible move away from HHS and consulted with Azar and other senior officials on Tuesday about the logistics of a medical vacation, said four people close to the situation. Some White House officials also concluded that Caputo had become a distraction and had to leave – whether on medical leave or otherwise.
McMaster University also tried to distance itself from Alexander. A spokesman said he is not currently teaching at the university, nor is he paid as a part-time assistant professor.
By Wednesday afternoon, the situation had become unsustainable and HHS announced that Caputo would be taking a 60-day medical absence. The speaker’s exit may put one of Trump’s most dedicated allies in the administration out of the way at a particularly sensitive time: the election is 48 days away.
HHS also said that Alexander would leave the department despite not offering any further details.
Caputo himself turned his departure as a necessary step for his health in a statement praising Fauci, saying he had consulted Trump and Azar about his next steps and needed checkups for a recently discovered lymph problem.
“”[E]The very American fight against COVID – in every city in every state in the country – has come under tremendous pressure. I’m just one of them, “said Caputo.” I’ve learned so much from friendship with the doctors on the President’s Coronavirus Task Force. “