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Trump HHS official faces firestorm after attacks on scientists

The Hill logo The Hill 2 days ago Nathaniel Weixel
Michael Caputo wearing a suit and tie and glasses: Trump HHS official faces firestorm after attacks on scientists © Getty Images Trump HHS official faces firestorm after attacks on scientists

Michael Caputo, the top communications official for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), sparked a firestorm this week with comments attacking scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

His comments brought to the forefront concerns over political officials interfering with scientists in order to paint a false picture on the pandemic that favors President Trump's public narrative.

The controversy risks further undermining public health agencies and the Trump administration's efforts to convince the public a potential coronavirus vaccine will be safe.

In a Facebook Live video first reported by The New York Times, Caputo said the CDC was harboring a "resistance unit" opposing Trump and accused government scientists of "sedition."

The news came after Caputo and one of his top aides came under fire in recent days for pressuring CDC scientists over their weekly reports on the coronavirus pandemic. He admitted to trying to control the content and timing of many of the reports because they undermined the president's message.

Numerous polls have found public trust in both political officials and health agencies is waning, troubling public health experts who worry that Americans may not get a coronavirus vaccine when it becomes available.

If Americans do not trust the people who tell them a vaccine is safe, they will be less likely to accept it, prolonging a pandemic that might otherwise be brought under control.

Top health officials have said they hope the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will approve a safe and effective vaccine by the end of the year and have taken pains to reassure the public that health agencies are independent from political persuasion.

But the effort has suffered serious setbacks, most notably when audio from journalist Bob Woodward's interviews revealed Trump was deliberately downplaying the threat from the virus despite knowing the danger it posed.

Without commenting on Caputo specifically, former CDC Director Tom Frieden said scientists are loyal to the facts and that it serves no purpose for them to be attacked.

"I know the doctors and scientists at the CDC well. They are devoted to stopping disease wherever and whenever it occurs. They are not disloyal to the administration. They are loyal to science," Frieden said.

According to the Times, Caputo said scientists "deep in the bowels of the CDC have given up science and become political animals."

The CDC is typically an apolitical institution staffed by career scientists. The agency's headquarters are in Atlanta, not Washington, in an effort to avoid political pressure.

Caputo is an experienced public affairs operative who was installed as the top HHS communications official in April after a series of critical reports about Trump's handling of the pandemic.

A Trump loyalist, his most recent book alleged a conspiracy behind Trump's impeachment. He is a veteran of Trump's 2016 campaign who has also been scrutinized for his past ties to Russia.

On Tuesday, Caputo apologized for his comments to HHS staff. He is reportedly considering taking a medical leave of absence. Caputo declined to comment.

In a statement on Monday, HHS said "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."

Caputo's remarks were quickly condemned by top Democrats in the House and Senate, who demanded he be fired by HHS Secretary Alex Azar.

"It is clear Secretary Azar cannot meet his basic responsibilities while allowing Michael A. Caputo, a yes-man for President Trump with no scientific expertise who publicly attacked CDC scientists and privately interfered with key CDC reports, to continue serving in such an influential role," Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the ranking member of the Senate Health Committee, said in a statement.

"Mr. Caputo clearly needs to be relieved of his duties. His sole job is to distort the truth on the taxpayer's dime. It also calls into question the leadership at HHS," said House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.).

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) said she still wants answers about HHS's $250 million taxpayer-funded advertising campaign.

"Mr. Caputo is not fit to spend one dime of taxpayers' dollars," DeLauro said. "This country needs real leadership and governance by truth, not a propaganda campaign led by a conspiracy theorist."

Lawrence Gostin, a global health law professor at Georgetown University, said Azar needs to fire Caputo in order to salvage the agency's reputation.

If that happened, "it would be clear that [Caputo] does not speak for the administration. But if they don't ... then there's a tacit endorsement of what he said," Gostin said.

"When somebody says something this outrageous, unless senior Cabinet officials like Azar and the president himself disavow him ... that's just a very unhealthy message to convey to the American public," Gostin said.

Caputo's attacks on the CDC follow a pattern of top administration officials, and even Trump himself, blaming shadowy figures inside the government for the president's coronavirus response.

Last month, Trump without evidence accused the "deep state" at the FDA for slowing COVID-19 vaccine trials.

"The deep state, or whoever, over at the FDA is making it very difficult for drug companies to get people in order to test the vaccines and therapeutics," Trump tweeted.

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