HHS said in a statement released early afternoon that Caputo would be on leave for the next 60 days to “focus on his health and the well-being of his family.” That means he will be gone until after the Nov. 3 election.
The agency also said that Paul Alexander, a top aide to Caputo, would be leaving the agency permanently. Alexander came under scrutiny in recent weeks for his efforts to exert control over the messages coming from scientists and top health officials, including the content of weekly science reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to make them conform to the president’s assertions that the virus is under control.
White House aides begun discussing a leave for Caputo Monday afternoon but he was initially resistant before coming around to the idea, said White House officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Caputo’s comments on Facebook Live had stunned many inside the administration, who said he appeared without approval, and aides struggled to find a video of it. “The great irony is he wanted to control everyone else’s appearances,” one senior administration official said.
White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany declined to comment on Caputo at a briefing Wednesday.
Caputo in recent days has accused White House staffers of running a vendetta against him.
Caputo had been set to oversee a critical public relations campaign to help build public trust in a coronavirus vaccine. Recent polls show a significant number of Americans are unlikely to take a vaccine as soon as it is available over fears that safety has been compromised for speed.
Several current and former officials said the recent controversies engulfing the longtime political operative threatened public trust in a crucial public relations campaign to boost acceptance of a vaccine that has already been highly politicized. White House officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Caputo’s exit will improve the communications strategy for the vaccine.
Speaking at a Senate hearing Wednesday, Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said he had been “deeply saddened” by Caputo’s remarks on the Facebook Live audio accusing his agency of containing a “resistance unit” trying to undermine the president.
“It not true,” Redfield said, characterizing the CDC as “made up of thousands of men and women, highly competent. It is the premier public health agency in the world.”
Redfield also denied that Caputo or Alexander had undermined the agency’s weekly science reports, known as Morbity and Mortality Weekly Report. “The scientific integrity of the MMWR has not been compromised, and will not be compromised on my watch,” he said.
Caputo had apologized to HHS staff on Tuesday for his remarks and the embarrassment they brought upon HHS and said then that he was considering a medical leave. He also said his family had been receiving threats and that his physical health was in question.
Trump installed Caputo at HHS in April after a series of damaging stories about Trump’s handling of the pandemic, according to three current and former senior administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe behind-the-scenes discussions.
Democrats called for his resignation on Monday — and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-NY) also called on HHS Secretary Alex Azar to step down on Tuesday — after reports over the weekend detailed how Caputo and a top aide, Paul Alexander, interfered in the weekly scientific reports from the CDC.
McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, where Alexander is listed as a part-time assistant professor, sought to distance itself from him as well on Monday.
“While Paul Alexander graduated with a PhD in health research methodologies from McMaster in 2015, he is not currently teaching and he is not paid by the university for his contract role as a part-time assistant professor,” said Susan Emigh, a spokeswoman at McMaster University. “As a consultant, he is not speaking on behalf of McMaster University or the Department of Health Research Methods, Evidence, and Impact.”
Caputo was an unusual choice for the top health communications job in the government because he has no background in health or science. The longtime political consultant began working with Trump in 2014, first to assist Trump’s unsuccessful bid to buy the Buffalo Bills that year and then, in 2016, to assist Trump’s efforts in the Republican primary for president in New York.
Amy Goldstein contributed to this story.