WASHINGTON — The top communications official at the powerful Cabinet department in charge of combating the coronavirus made outlandish and false accusations Sunday that career government scientists were engaging in “sedition” in their handling of the pandemic and that left-wing hit squads were preparing for armed insurrection after the election.
Michael R. Caputo, assistant secretary of public affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services, accused the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of harboring a “resistance unit” determined to undermine President Donald Trump, even if that opposition bolsters the COVID-19 death toll.
Caputo, who has faced intense criticism for leading efforts to warp CDC weekly bulletins to fit Trump’s pandemic narrative, suggested that he personally could be in danger from opponents of the administration.
“If you carry guns, buy ammunition, ladies and gentlemen, because it’s going to be hard to get,” he urged his followers.
He went further, saying his physical health was in question, and his “mental health has definitely failed.”
“I don’t like being alone in Washington,” Caputo said, describing “shadows on the ceiling in my apartment, there alone, shadows are so long.” He also said the mounting number of COVID-19 deaths was taking a toll on him, telling his viewers, “You are not waking up every morning and talking about dead Americans.” The United States has lost more than 194,200 people to the virus. Caputo urged people to attend Trump rallies, but only with masks.
To a certain extent, Caputo’s comments in a video he hosted live on his personal Facebook page were simply an amplified version of remarks that the president himself has made. Both men have singled out government scientists and health officials as disloyal, suggested that the election will not be fairly decided, and insinuated that left-wing groups are secretly plotting to incite violence across the United States.
But Caputo’s attacks were more direct, and they came from one of the officials most responsible for shaping communications around the coronavirus.
CDC scientists “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.”
A longtime Trump loyalist with no background in health care, Caputo, 58, was appointed by the White House to his post in April, at a time when the president’s aides suspected the health secretary, Alex Azar, of protecting his public image instead of Trump’s. Caputo coordinates the messaging of an 80,000-employee department that is the center of the pandemic response, overseeing the Food and Drug Administration, the CDC and the National Institutes of Health.
“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,” the Department of Health and Human Services said in a statement.
Caputo’s Facebook comments were another sign of the administration’s deep antipathy and suspicion for its own scientific experts across the bureaucracy and the growing political pressure on those experts to toe a political line favorable to Trump.
Last weekend, first Politico, then The New York Times and other news media organizations published accounts of how Caputo and a top aide had routinely worked to revise, delay or even scuttle the core health bulletins of the CDC to paint the administration’s pandemic response in a more positive light. The Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports had previously been so thoroughly shielded from political interference that political appointees only saw them just before they were published.
Caputo’s 26-minute broadside on Facebook against scientists, the news media and Democrats was also another example of a senior administration official stoking public anxiety about the election and conspiracy theories about the “deep state” — the label Trump often attaches to the federal civil service bureaucracy.
Caputo predicted that the president would win reelection in November, but that his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, would refuse to concede, leading to violence.
“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.”
There were no obvious signs from administration officials Monday that Caputo’s job was in danger. On the contrary, Trump again added his voice to the administration’s science denialism. As the president visited California to show solidarity with the fire-ravaged West, he challenged the established science of climate change, declaring, “It will start getting cooler.” He added: “Just watch. I don’t think science knows, actually.”
Caputo’s remarks also dovetailed in part with those of Roger Stone, a longtime confidant of both Caputo and Trump. Stone, whose 40-month prison sentence for lying to Congress was commuted by the president in July, told the conspiracy website Infowars on Friday that Trump should consider declaring martial law if he lost reelection.
Grant Smith, a lawyer for Stone, was among the followers who had joined his talk Sunday.
Caputo has 5,000 Facebook friends, and his video was viewed more than 850 times. He has now shut down his account.
Overall, his tone was deeply ominous: He warned, again without evidence, that “there are hit squads being trained all over this country” to mount armed opposition to a second term for Trump. “You understand that they’re going to have to kill me, and unfortunately, I think that’s where this is going,” Caputo added.
In a statement Monday, Caputo told The Times: “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.”
He insisted on Facebook that he would weather the controversies, saying, “I’m not going anywhere.” And he boasted of the importance of his role, stating that the president had personally put him in charge of a $250 million public service advertising campaign intended to help the United States return to normal.
The Department of Health and Human Services is trying to use that campaign to attract more minority volunteers for clinical trials of potential COVID-19 vaccines and to ask people who have recovered to donate their blood plasma to help other infected patients. Department officials have complained that congressional Democrats are obstructing the effort.
While Caputo characterized CDC scientists in withering terms, he said the agency’s director, Dr. Robert R. Redfield, was “one of my closest friends in Washington,” adding, “He is such a good man.” Caputo is partly credited with helping choose Redfield’s new interim chief of staff.
Critics say Redfield has left the Atlanta-based agency open to so much political interference that career scientists are the verge of resigning. The agency was previously seen as mostly apolitical. Its reports were internationally respected for their importance and expertise.
Caputo charged that scientists “deep in the bowels of the CDC” walked “around like they are monks” and “holy men” but engaged in “rotten science.”
He fiercely defended his scientific adviser, Dr. Paul Alexander, who was heavily involved in the effort to reshape the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports. Caputo described Alexander, an assistant professor at McMaster University in Canada, as “a genius.”
“To allow people to die so that you can replace the president is a grievous venial sin, venial sin,” Caputo said. “And these people are all going to hell.”
A public relations specialist, Caputo has repeatedly claimed that his family and his business suffered hugely because of the investigation by the special counsel, Robert Mueller, into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Caputo was a minor figure in that inquiry, but he was of interest partly because he had once lived in Russia, had worked for Russian politicians and was contacted in 2016 by a Russian who claimed to have damaging information about Hillary Clinton.
Caputo referred that person to Stone and was never charged with any wrongdoing. Caputo later wrote a book and produced a documentary, both entitled “The Ukraine Hoax,” to undermine the case for Trump’s impeachment.
Caputo worked on Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign for a time but was passed over for a job early in the administration. He remained friendly with Dan Scavino, the former campaign aide who is now the deputy chief of staff for White House communications and played a role in reconnecting Trump and Caputo.
Some of Caputo’s most disturbing comments were centered on what he described as a left-wing plot to harm the administration’s supporters. He claimed baselessly that the killing of a Trump supporter in Portland, Oregon, in August by an avowed supporter of the left-wing collective was merely a practice run for more violence.
“Remember the Trump supporter who was shot and killed?” Caputo said. “That was a drill.”
The man suspected in the shooting, Michael Forest Reinoehl, was shot dead this month by officers.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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