By ALI DUKAKIS, ABC News
(WASHINGTON) — A top Trump administration official who accused government scientists of “sedition” in addressing the COVID-19 pandemic apologized to his boss, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, and is considering a leave of absence, ABC News has learned.
HHS Assistant Secretary of Public Affairs Michael Caputo, whose office reportedly pressured the CDC to make reports on the coronavirus match President Donald Trump’s public comments on the state of the pandemic, accused the CDC of having a “resistance unit” dedicated to undermining Trump and contended scientists were guilty of “sedition” in a Facebook Live video stream on Sunday.
A source with direct knowledge confirmed to ABC News on Tuesday that Caputo apologized to career officials at HHS and Azar for his comments on Sunday. The source also said that Caputo is considering a leave of absence for personal physical health issues, first reported by Politico and The New York Times.
Caputo, who deactivated his Facebook account on Monday, which removed the video, confirmed to ABC News the accuracy of quotes from the video first reported by The New York Times. He did not immediately return request from ABC News to confirm reports of his apology and consideration of leaving his role as the top communications official at HHS.
Caputo blamed his behavior on his health and the toll of threats he said had been made against his family when reached by ABC News on Tuesday.
A one-time 2016 Trump campaign aide, Caputo — who does not have any prior experience in public health — was appointed by Trump to a top post at HHS this spring to shape messaging by health agencies on the novel coronavirus pandemic.
In his Facebook Live video on Sunday, Caputo also said the shooting in Portland of a Trump supporter was a “drill” and predicted there will be shootings on inauguration day — calling on Trump supporters to buy gun ammunition. He went on to say he was under siege by the media, adding that his physical health was in question and his “mental health has definitely failed.”
In a statement to ABC News on Monday, Caputo said “Since joining the administration my family and I have been continually threatened and in and out of criminal court dealing with harassment prosecutions. 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.”
When asked if Azar has confidence in Caputo, an HHS spokesperson told ABC News in a statement, “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.”
In an interview with ABC Chief Anchor George Stephanopoulos on “Good Morning America” on Tuesday, Trump’s adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, when asked if he shares the same concern as Caputo about “sedition” by the scientists at the CDC replied that “there’s a lot of tensions that have been very high with a lot of people” and “we have a lot of people who have different opinions on different things.”
When asked by Stephanopoulos if someone who views CDC as having a “resistance unit” inside the CDC should have a job of responsibility at HHS, Kushner replied that Caputo “works for the secretary there, Secretary Alex Azar, who’s done a very good job throughout this crisis.”
Caputo and his team spent the weekend under fire after Politico quoted from emails that allegedly show how they pressured scientists to change their weekly reports on the pandemic so they aligned with the president’s message. According to Politico, the CDC pushed back against the changes but did agree to compromise on some of the wording.
In one exchange, Dr. Paul Alexander, a scientific adviser to Caputo, said CDC scientists were using the reports to “hurt the President,” according to Politico.
McMaster University, the public research university in Ontario, Canada, where Alexander previously served as an assistant professor and received his PhD in health research methodologies, said in a statement to ABC News that he is not currently teaching or under contract with the school, and “is not speaking on behalf of McMaster University or the Department of Health Research Methods, Evidence and Impact.”
The reported interference efforts have drawn the attention of House Democrats, whose House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus has launched an investigation into the allegations and are seeking records from HHS and interviews with Caputo and several of his deputies, along with other Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials involved in publishing the critical reports, which are used by medical professionals across the country.
“Given the crucial and pressing need for truthful scientific information during this ongoing public health crisis, the Select Subcommittee is seeking to determine the scope of political interference with CDC’s scientific reports and other efforts to combat the pandemic, the impact of this interference on CDC’s mission, whether this interference is continuing, and the steps that Congress may need to take to stop it before more Americans die needlessly,” they wrote in a letter to Azar and CDC Director Robert Redfield.
Caputo has worked in politics going back to the Reagan administration, including on the 1992 presidential campaign of George H.W. Bush. In the 1990s, Caputo lived in Russia while working for then-President Boris Yeltsin and the Kremlin. And in 2001, for two weeks, Caputo worked in the U.S. for an energy company with ties to current Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Roger Stone has described Caputo as his “protégé.” Caputo and Stone met in the mid-1980s when Caputo worked at Stone’s lobbying firm, Black, Manafort, and Stone, as Stone’s driver. In 2015, Stone brought Caputo on with him to serve in the nascent days of Trump’s presidential run.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer called on Azar to resign from his position Tuesday, accusing Azar of trying to “suppress the science” surrounding COVID-19.
“It is becoming abundantly clear that the leadership of the Department of Health and Human Services has allowed perhaps the most important federal agency right now to become subservient to the President’s daily whims,” Schumer said. “Today I am calling on Secretary Azar to resign immediately. We need a Secretary of Health and Human Services who will look out for the American people, not President Trump’s political interests.”
While Schumer did not refer to Caputo by name or his comments over the weekend, Schumer did point to “numerous reports that political appointees at HHS have been interfering with the CDC’s report on COVID-19, trying to delay, edit out or halt the release of facts that would have been politically embarrassing to the president.”
“He’s been almost entirely silent about the chaos and mismanagement in his own agency,” Schumer said.
In a briefing for the Infectious Disease Society of America on Tuesday, former CDC Director Tom Friedan responded to Caputo’s statements accusing CDC scientists of sedition and being part of the deep state, saying they’re doing their job and their loyalty is to science and the American people.
“I know the doctors and scientists at CDC Well, they are devoted to stopping disease wherever and whenever it occurs. They’re not just loyal to the administration, they are loyal to science,” Friedan said.
ABC News’ Ben Siegel and Stephanie Ebbs contributed to this report.
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