Michael Caputo, a top Trump administration communications official who accused government scientists of “sedition” in a private online social media video this week, is taking a “leave of absence” from the Department of Health and Human Services “to focus on his on his health and the well-being of his family, the agency announced on Tuesday.
“Mr. Caputo will be on leave for the next 60 days,” HHS said in a statement released to the press Wednesday.
Also leaving HHS is Dr. Paul Alexander, who was recently brought in to work with Caputo as his senior advisor. Ryan Murphy, a longtime aide to Health Secretary Alex Azar and principal deputy assistant secretary for public affiars, will step in to lead day-to-day operations, according to the statement.
The news follows media reports that Caputo and Alexander pressured the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to alter scientific reports. Also, on Sunday, Caputo in a video on Facebook Live accused government scientists at the CDC of “sedition” and urged the president’s followers to arm themselves ahead of the election.
Dr. Robert Redfield, head of CDC, testified before a Senate panel on Wednesday that he was “deeply saddened” to read of what he said were unfounded accusations.
In a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing, Redfield, who did not reference Caputo by name in his testimony, said that there was no truth to the claims.
“I want to make a comment that not only is it not true, it deeply saddens me when I read those comments,” Redifield, a Trump appointee, told Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.
“As I said in my statement, CDC is made up of thousands of dedicated men and women, highly competent It is the premier public health agency in the world, dedicated 24-7 to use their skills to protect the American public and the world. And it deeply saddened me that those false accusations were made (about) a group of really unbelievably professional people that serve this nation,” he added.
Murray said she was deeply concerned about the accusations, as well as recent media reports that political appointees had leaned on the CDC to alter scientific findings.
Redfield denied that the CDC had ever allowed its findings to be influenced by politics.
Adm. Brett Gioir, an HHS official appointed by Trump to coordinate testing efforts, also defended the CDC.
When asked by Murray if Giroir rejects “the unfounded harmful conspiracy theory” that CDC has “deep state ulterior motives,” Giroir responded: “I have not seen anything out of CDC … any of the agencies I’ve worked with that is anything but people acting in the best interests of the American people. I’ve currently not seen anything that you described.”
At one point, Murray also asked Redfield if he had ever advised Trump to downplay the crisis. In a newly released book by The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward called “Rage,” Trump says he knew the virus was much more deadly than the flu even though he dismissed those findings in public. The president has since said he didn’t want to create a panic.
“No one advised the president to downplay this crisis,” Redfield said Wednesday.
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 earlier this week 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.”
ABC News’ Ali Dukakis, Stephanie Ebbs and Trish Turner contributed to this report.