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 U.S. President Donald Trump and warned of shooting 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.
The department is so far standing by Caputo's boss, HHS Secretary Alex Azar, in the face of calls by congressional Democrats for his resignation.
Caputo was heard on an HHS podcast asserting that Democrats don't 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.
"There are people in the United States government on the Democrats' side … [who] do not want a vaccine," Caputo said.
"They don't want a vaccine until November 4th," he added, citing the day after the presidential election.
This week, Hamilton's McMaster University appeared to be distancing itself from Paul Alexander, a part-time faculty member who has been working with Caputo.
Caputo was named the top HHS spokesman in April, during a tense period in relations between the White House and Azar.
Over the weekend, Caputo made headlines when Politico and the New York Times reported that his office had tried to gain control over a CDC publication known as the MMWR, or Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. In previous administrations, political appointees in the HHS secretary's office maintained a hands-off policy.
The story took a strange turn Monday, after the Times reported about a live video hosted by Caputo on his personal Facebook page. In it, Caputo reportedly accused government scientists of conspiring against Trump as part of a "resistance."
The message turned apocalyptic when Caputo reportedly predicted that Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden would refuse to concede defeat to Trump in the election, and violence would break out. The Associated Press was unable to independently view the video.
HHS initially supported Caputo, with a statement calling him 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."
There was no immediate statement from the White House.
Attempts to interview Caputo were unsuccessful.
Officials at CDC have privately complained of recent efforts by political appointees at HHS to try to edit or press for changes in the agency's weekly MMWR publications, a go-to resource for public health professionals.
MMWR articles are technical, but they reveal telling details. One published earlier this year noted that while Trump's travel restrictions dramatically reduced travel from China in February, nothing was being done at that time to restrict travel from Italy and Europe, where the coronavirus was spreading widely and rapidly. Analysis of virus samples from hard-hit New York in March suggested it was introduced there from Europe and other parts of the U.S., the CDC article reported.
Caputo is an unswerving Trump loyalist. His recent book, The Ukraine Hoax, claims the president's "phony" impeachment was rooted in a vast conspiracy.
His appointment at HHS was seen as an attempt by the White House to exert more control over Azar, whom other administration officials were trying to blame for the government's slow response in the initial weeks of the pandemic.
At HHS, he's been closely affiliated with Operation Warp Speed, the government's effort to have millions of doses of a COVID-19 vaccine ready for distribution as soon as one is approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
Caputo interviewed Dr. Moncef Slaoui, a top outside adviser to the vaccine effort, on an HHS podcast July 31. Commiserating with Slaoui over Democrats and news articles that were critical of the doctor, Caputo said:
"I know that's hard to believe, but the people who are abusing you, and who are beating down Operation Warp Speed, and the incredible historic work that's going on, they don't want a vaccine until November 4th. I don't want to talk about politics here, but November 3rd is an important day. They don't want a vaccine now because of politics, sir."
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