Top HHS official apologizes for incendiary remarks accusing colleagues of ‘sedition’

By Yasmeen Abutaleb and Josh Dawsey,

The U.S. health department’s top communications official apologized to staff members on Tuesday for incendiary remarks he made earlier this week urging President Trump’s supporters to prepare for an armed insurrection and accusing government scientists of “sedition,” according to two people familiar with the meeting.

Michael Caputo, assistant secretary for public affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services, which is playing a lead role in the response to the coronavirus pandemic, promoted those and other conspiracy theories in a Facebook Live event he did on Sunday.

At his meeting with staff members Tuesday, Caputo apologized for his remarks and the embarrassment they brought upon the agency, according to the people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the proceedings. He also indicated his departure might be imminent, saying he was considering a medical leave. He added that his family had been receiving threats and that his physical health was in question.

Neither Caputo nor HHS responded immediately to a request for comment about the staff meeting, which was first reported by Politico.

Several current and former officials said the recent controversies engulfing Caputo threatened a crucial public relations campaign to win public trust in a coronavirus vaccine that has already been highly politicized.

White House officials were in discussion with HHS Secretary Alex Azar about Caputo’s future, said a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to reveal private discussions.

Caputo, a Trump loyalist, has sought to exert control over the messages coming from scientists and top health officials since the White House installed him at the agency in April. Democrats called for his resignation on Monday — and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-NY) called for Azar’s resignation on Tuesday — after The Washington Post and others reported how Caputo and a top aide, Paul Alexander, attempted to interfere in the weekly scientific missives produced by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, known as the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports.

McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, where Alexander is listed as a part-time assistant professor, also sought to distance itself from him 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 McMaster spokeswoman. “As a consultant, he is not speaking on behalf of McMaster University or the Department of Health Research Methods, Evidence, and Impact.”

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