Wagner was also involved in the agency’s botched rollout of blood plasma as a coronavirus treatment, an episode that eventually led FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn to apologize for making claims that overstated the treatment’s benefits. Caputo this month reassigned Wagner to work in the department’s preparedness and response agency on efforts to rush a coronavirus vaccine.
Meanwhile, at the CDC, he punctuated an ongoing feud with the agency by helping install the agency’s new top communications officer in June with little notice to the agency’s senior leadership team.
That official — Nina Witkofsky, who had previously served as a communications contractor helping arrange trips for Verma — in August became the CDC’s acting chief of staff. Witkofsky did not respond to a request for comment about her work or communications with Caputo.
But the Caputo aide who attracted the most controversy was Paul Alexander, an unpaid, part-time professor at McMaster University. Alexander, whose departure was tersely reported by HHS along with Caputo’s medical leave, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Brought on as Caputo’s science aide in a newly created role this spring, Alexander spent months berating government scientists and trying to edit scientific bulletins written by the Centers for Disease Control, the agency’s famed Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports or MMWRs, POLITICO first reported on Friday.
In emails, Alexander attacked CDC scientists for trying to “hurt the president” by allegedly skewing their bulletins and seeking to undermine Trump’s optimistic message on the pandemic. The behavior was a habit for Alexander: he last week attempted to prevent infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci from discussing the risks of coronavirus for children, and the Washington Post in July reported on Alexander’s earlier efforts to chastise CDC officials.
But Alexander had a powerful protector — Caputo, who shared his adviser’s belief that a “deep state” inside the government was working to damage Trump before the election.
* * *
After Friday’s POLITICO report, Caputo found himself in a new position: rather than fix the story, Caputo was the story.
Prominent public health experts decried his team’s efforts to change carefully vetted, rigorously non-partisan scientific texts.
The MMWRs are “required reading, especially during a pandemic,” Rich Besser, the CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the former acting head of the CDC, wrote in the Scientific American. “To meddle with, delay or politicize these reports would be a form of scientific blasphemy as well as a breach of public trust that could undermine the nation’s efforts to fight the coronavirus.”
Meanwhile, career civil servants inside HHS were horrified that their work could be distorted by a career political consultant who was seeking to protect the president.
Even some Trump appointees who privately admired Caputo’s style — praising his efforts to spar with administration critics and attack the media — felt he had gone too far by seeking to edit scientific documents.
“This guy’s problem is that he doesn’t know where the red line is,” said one senior official who believed some of Caputo’s hardball tactics were justified. “Or maybe he sees the red line and he’s like a bull, he charges over it.”
Besieged by critics and dogged by a personal health concern, Caputo struck 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. “You know why? Because the president of the United States supports me.”
But the video veered into conspiracy thinking — as Caputo spouted theories about “hit squads” organized by opponents of Trump and urged militia members to stockpile ammunition in case of a disputed election — and featured extended riffs on Caputo’s frustrations with Washington, D.C. The health department’s top spokesman also lodged more than a dozen attacks on the scientists whose work he was nominally hired to promote.
“These scientists at the Centers for Disease Control, some of them have rotted from the brain out,” Caputo said. “They’re working against Donald Trump as scientists.”
“There are scientists who work for this government who do not 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 it because I’ve heard it … these people are all going to hell.”
On Monday, a House oversight subcommittee opened an investigation into Caputo’s efforts to meddle with the CDC’s reports, requesting that he, Alexander and other HHS officials submit for interviews next week.
The latest news in health care politics and policy.
Senior Democrats also called on Caputo to step down, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer on Tuesday demanded that Azar himself resign for allowing Caputo and his team to pressure government scientists, among other criticisms. Meanwhile, multiple media outlets dug into Caputo’s role at HHS, including his hometown newspaper, which found his stewardship lacking.
“Caputo’s ideas about managing a health crisis need to be put out to pasture,” wrote the Buffalo News in an editorial on Tuesday, calling on him to resign immediately.
Amid the firestorm, Caputo weighed a potential departure from HHS, consulting with Azar and other senior officials on Tuesday about the logistics of a medical leave, said four individuals close to the situation. Some White House officials began to conclude as well that Caputo had become a distraction and needed to depart — whether medical leave or otherwise.
McMaster University also sought to distance itself from Alexander, with a spokesperson saying that he is not currently teaching at the university nor has he been paid as a part-time assistant professor.
By Wednesday afternoon, the situation had become untenable, and HHS announced that Caputo was taking a 60-day medical absence. The spokesperson’s exit potentially sidelines one of Trump’s most devoted allies in government at a particularly sensitive time: the election is 48 days away.
HHS also said that Alexander was leaving the department, although didn’t offer further details.
Caputo himself spun his departure as a necessary move for his health, in a statement where he praised Fauci, said he’d consulted with Trump and Azar about his next steps and needed to pursue screenings for a recently discovered lymphatic issue.
“[E]very American battling COVID — in every city in every state across the nation — has been under enormous pressure. I am just one of them,” Caputo said. “I’ve learned so much in friendship with the doctors of the President’s Coronavirus Task Force.”