“I’m delighted to have Michael Caputo join our team at [HHS] as our Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs, especially at this critical time in our nation’s public health history,” Azar posted on Twitter after POLITICO’s story published, sharing a photo of the two men sitting together at HHS headquarters.
The White House declined to comment.
Brad Traverse, a longtime lobbyist who created the popular BradTraverse.com site for Washington-area job hunters, will be Caputo’s deputy, said two individuals with knowledge of the move. Traverse’s photo was removed in recent days from his job-hitting website. Traverse did not immediately respond to request for comment.
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 wrote last year in POLITICO magazine about his fears after being wrapped up in Robert Mueller’s probe of Trump, which Caputo said had led to threats on his life.
“I’ve installed shotgun stations in my home, and I carry a concealed weapon wherever it’s legal,” Caputo wrote.
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.