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Leave of absence for health official in furor over meddling

UPDATED: Wed., Sept. 16, 2020

FILE - In this May 1, 2018, file photo, Former Donald Trump campaign official Michael Caputo, left, joined by his attorney Dennis C. Vacco, leaves after being interviewed by Senate Intelligence Committee staff investigating Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, on Capitol Hill in Washington. A House subcommittee examining President Donald Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic is launching an investigation into reports that political appointees have meddled with routine government scientific data to better align with Trump’s public statements. The Democrat-led subcommittee said Sept. 14, 2020 that it is requesting transcribed interviews with seven officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Health and Human Services, including communications aide Michael Caputo.  (J. Scott Applewhite)
FILE - In this May 1, 2018, file photo, Former Donald Trump campaign official Michael Caputo, left, joined by his attorney Dennis C. Vacco, leaves after being interviewed by Senate Intelligence Committee staff investigating Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, on Capitol Hill in Washington. A House subcommittee examining President Donald Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic is launching an investigation into reports that political appointees have meddled with routine government scientific data to better align with Trump’s public statements. The Democrat-led subcommittee said Sept. 14, 2020 that it is requesting transcribed interviews with seven officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Health and Human Services, including communications aide Michael Caputo. (J. Scott Applewhite)
By Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration health official embroiled in a furor over political meddling with the coronavirus response is taking a leave of absence, the government announced Wednesday.

The Department of Health and Human Services said in a statement that Michael Caputo was taking the time “to focus on his health and the well-being of his family.”

Caputo, the department’s top spokesman, apologized on Tuesday to his staff for a Facebook video in which he reportedly said scientists battling the coronavirus are conspiring against President Donald Trump and warned of shooting in America if Trump were to lose the November election.

The Trump appointee also was accused of trying to muzzle a scientific weekly put out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Caputo, a fierce Trump loyalist who had no health care experience when he was appointed to the HHS job, had become a significant new problem for a White House that has struggled all year with its coronavirus response. Democrats on Capitol Hill had called for Caputo’s resignation.

His appointment at the health agency was seen as an attempt by the White House to exert more control over Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, whom other administration officials were trying to blame for the government’s slow response in the initial weeks of the pandemic.

Caputo can be heard on an HHS podcast asserting that Democrats do not want a coronavirus vaccine before the election in order to punish Trump. Although Trump has made the same assertion, with no evidence to support it, such broadsides are not in a department spokesman’s normal portfolio.

News reports alleged last week that Caputo’s office tried to take over and muzzle a scientific weekly from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that publishes what is supposed to be authoritative, unvarnished information about disease-fighting efforts, including, most importantly at present, COVID-19.

Then on Monday came an account of the video on Caputo’s personal Facebook page in which he accused government scientists of conspiring against Trump and suggested violence could break out after the Nov. 3 election.

On a taxpayer-funded podcast earlier this summer he accused Democrats and the media of not wanting a coronavirus vaccine until after the elections in order to defeat Trump.

“There are people in the United States government on the Democrats’ side … (who) do not want a vaccine,” he said. “They don’t want a vaccine until November 4th,” he added, citing the day after the election.

It’s highly unusual to use an agency communications platform for such a blatantly political message.

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