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Controversial HHS official installed by White House taking medical leave of absence

By Lauren Clason, CQ-Roll Call on

Published in Political News

WASHINGTON - The Department of Health and Human Services announced that Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Michael Caputo will take a 60-day medical leave of absence, following a torrid five-month stint that included efforts to downplay the COVID-19 pandemic.

Caputo's tenure was capped by a livestreamed Facebook video echoing right-wing conspiracies depicting department scientists as leftists and predicting societal revolts.

HHS said in a statement Caputo decided to take the absence "to focus on his health and the well-being of his family." Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Ryan Murphy will fill the role in the meantime.

His Facebook Live comments on Sunday coincided with additional revelations that he and an aide, Paul Alexander, attempted to interfere with reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Reports emerged that his staff tried to make the findings reflect more favorably on the Trump administration's response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the video, Caputo noted the toll the pandemic was taking on his mental health, in addition to ongoing stress from his entanglement in Robert Mueller's Russia investigation.

HHS said Alexander would permanently leave his role, which the agency said he was hired to fill on a temporary basis.

 

Caputo told viewers on Sunday that his "mental health is definitely failing," lamenting media attacks but promising that "'I'm not going anywhere."

"I don't like being alone in Washington," he said. "The shadows on the ceiling in my apartment, there alone, those shadows are so long."

He also labeled CDC scientists as seditionists and peddled a conspiracy theory about a potential armed insurgency against President Donald Trump. He deleted his Facebook and personal Twitter accounts shortly thereafter.

Caputo was installed in April by the White House following a public feud between HHS Secretary Alex Azar and Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma. His caustic attacks stood in stark contrast to the approach of his predecessors, but were meant to unite the department's political message and align with that of the White House.

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