White House snubs Azar, installs Trump loyalist Michael Caputo as HHS spokesperson

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White House snubs Azar, installs Trump loyalist Michael Caputo as HHS spokesperson

The White House is installing Trump campaign veteran Michael Caputo in the health department’s top communications position, Caputo confirmed to POLITICO.

The move is designed to assert more White House control over Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, whom officials believe has been behind recent critical reports about President Donald Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, according to two officials with knowledge of the move.

Caputo, whose title will be assistant secretary of HHS for public affairs, said in a text message, “I am honored to serve the President to the best of my abilities in this time of crisis and, in so doing, the American people.”

Caputo is an intense Trump loyalist whose recent book “The Ukraine Hoax,” alleged a conspiracy behind Trump’s impeachment.

The high-level move comes after a series of news reports that portrayed Azar as warning Trump about the pending Covid-19 pandemic in January but having the president and his aides dismiss his concerns. Trump on Sunday tweeted that Azar “told me nothing until later,” appearing to refute those reports.

White House officials believe that Azar has been shaping favorable coverage of his handling of the Covid-19 outbreak and trying to shift blame for the administration’s mishandled response, said two officials with knowledge of the situation. White House frustration with Azar also dates back to last year, with officials unhappy about his long-running feud with Medicare chief Seema Verma, Azar’s nominal deputy who maintains her own strong relationship with Trump.

The White House declined to comment. HHS did not immediately respond to request for comment.

White House snubs Azar, installs Trump loyalist Michael Caputo as HHS spokesperson 2

Azar has spent the past year battling with White House officials and his own deputies over policies and personnel, and the White House recently installed a new HHS personnel chief. Meanwhile, Verma has assumed a more prominent role in the White House’s coronavirus response even as Azar, who led the response for January and much of February, has disappeared from national TV.

Verma last week publicly announced an initiative to disburse billions of dollars to hard-hit health care providers that was part of Azar’s portfolio — a move that rattled Azar’s allies given that the health secretary was out of the office that day, mourning the death of his father. Two of Verma’s supporters said that the Medicare chief was directed to make the announcement at the behest of the White House.

Caputo maintains a colorful Twitter feed where he’s battled with political rivals and repeatedly weighed in on the coronavirus outbreak, although the tweets have since been deleted.

“For the Democrat 2020 victory strategy to work, 100,000+ Americans have to die,” Caputo wrote on March 11 in a now-deleted tweet. “For the Democrat 2020 victory strategy to work, you have to believe the media.”

“This little guy lost so many Iranian mullah friends to the [coronavirus] that he’s in mourning. Thoughts and prayers,” Caputo wrote on March 12, quoting a tweet by former Obama administration official Ben Rhodes.

Caputo also posted a series of tweets last month mocking Andrew Gillum, the unsuccessful 2018 Democratic candidate for Florida governor, after Gillum was reportedly found by police in a hotel room with two men and drug paraphernalia.

“Of course unprotected down low meth sex is totally responsible behavior during a global pandemic,” Caputo wrote in a now-deleted tweet.

Caputo is a longtime friend of Trump ally Roger Stone and former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, both of whom were convicted of crimes in the last two years.

Caputo once lived in Moscow, where he worked for Boris Yeltsin and also performed public relations work for a subsidiary to Russian state-owned energy conglomerate Gazprom. Caputo told the Buffalo News in 2016 that he wasn’t “proud of the work today, but at the time, [Russian President Vladimir] Putin wasn’t such a bad guy.”

While Caputo has decades of expertise in communications, he has not worked in a high-level health care role before.

However, White House officials are looking to shake up HHS communications after growing perturbed by a series of news reports, including a story this week in The Daily Beast that called Azar “a rare and unlikely hero” inside the Trump administration — an article that was heavily circulated by White House officials.

“People who know him say he believes in his mission even if the president doesn’t believe in him,” Daily Beast columnist Eleanor Clift wrote on Monday. Clift told POLITICO on Wednesday that she wrote the story after reading favorable coverage of Azar in publications like The New York Times and The Washington Post and did not speak with Azar directly.

Installing Caputo allows the White House to further control Azar’s communications strategy, said two individuals with knowledge of the pending move.

HHS has cycled through four communications chiefs in the past three years, including two who have since left the department. Ryan Murphy has been serving as the acting assistant secretary for public affairs since last October, after previous communications chief Judy Stecker was promoted to serve as Azar’s deputy chief of staff.

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