WASHINGTON — The top communications official at the powerful Cabinet department in charge of combating the coronavirus made outlandish and false accusations Sunday that career government scientists were engaging in “sedition” in their handling of the pandemic and that left-wing hit squads were preparing for armed insurrection after the election.
Michael R. Caputo, assistant secretary of public affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services, accused the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of harboring a “resistance unit” determined to undermine President Donald Trump, even if that opposition bolsters the COVID-19 death toll.
Caputo, who has faced intense criticism for leading efforts to warp CDC weekly bulletins to fit Trump’s pandemic narrative, suggested that he personally could be in danger from opponents of the administration.
“If you carry guns, buy ammunition, ladies and gentlemen, because it’s going to be hard to get,” he urged his followers.
He went further, saying his physical health was in question, and his “mental health has definitely failed.”
“I don’t like being alone in Washington,” Caputo said, describing “shadows on the ceiling in my apartment, there alone, shadows are so long.” He also said the mounting number of COVID-19 deaths was taking a toll on him, telling his viewers, “You are not waking up every morning and talking about dead Americans.” The United States has lost more than 194,200 people to the virus. Caputo urged people to attend Trump rallies, but only with masks.
To a certain extent, Caputo’s comments in a video he hosted live on his personal Facebook page were simply an amplified version of remarks that the president himself has made. Both men have singled out government scientists and health officials as disloyal, suggested that the election will not be fairly decided, and insinuated that left-wing groups are secretly plotting to incite violence across the United States.
But Caputo’s attacks were more direct, and they came from one of the officials most responsible for shaping communications around the coronavirus.
CDC scientists “haven’t gotten out of their sweatpants except for meetings at coffee shops” to plot “how they’re going to attack Donald Trump next,” Caputo said. “There are scientists who work for this government who do not want America to get well, not until after Joe Biden is president.”
A longtime Trump loyalist with no background in health care, Caputo, 58, was appointed by the White House to his post in April, at a time when the president’s aides suspected the health secretary, Alex Azar, of protecting his public image instead of Trump’s. Caputo coordinates the messaging of an 80,000-employee department that is at the center of the pandemic response, overseeing the Food and Drug Administration, the CDC and the National Institutes of Health.
“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,” the Department of Health and Human Services said in a statement.
Caputo’s Facebook comments were another sign of the administration’s deep antipathy and suspicion for its own scientific experts across the bureaucracy and the growing political pressure on those experts to toe a political line favorable to Trump.
Last weekend, first Politico, then The New York Times and other news media organizations published accounts of how Caputo and a top aide had routinely worked to revise, delay or even scuttle the core health bulletins of the CDC to paint the administration’s pandemic response in a more positive light. The CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports had previously been so thoroughly shielded from political interference that political appointees only saw them just before they were published.
Caputo’s 26-minute broadside on Facebook against scientists, the news media and Democrats was also another example of a senior administration official stoking public anxiety about the election and conspiracy theories about the “deep state” — the label Trump often attaches to the federal civil service bureaucracy.