Why is a right-wing flack and Roger Stone ally in charge of Dr. Fauci's schedule?

We asked Michael Caputo why he's running the government's coronavirus PR. His response: "What's with the attitude?"

Published July 21, 2020 6:00AM (EDT)

Michael Caputo (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Michael Caputo (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Last week the Washington Post published a report titled "Fauci is sidelined by the White House as he steps up blunt talk on pandemic," which revealed that President Trump had not sought the counsel of the government's top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, in more than a month.

But as the Trump administration has strayed from the advice of many of its scientists and public health experts, the White House has moved to sideline Fauci, scuttled some of his planned TV appearances and largely kept him out of the Oval Office for more than a month even as coronavirus infections surge in large swaths of the country.

The 2,500-word report only briefly touches on the official who does that scuttling: a man named Michael Caputo, a 2016 Trump campaign aide who has been described as a conspiracy theorist with racist views and is closely allied with former Trump adviser Roger Stone.

It's not clear when Caputo took control of Fauci's media calendar. In a brief conversation with Salon, he replied, "Weeks ago." Asked if he could ballpark how many weeks that was, Caputo replied, "No."

The administration hired Caputo as deputy press secretary for Health and Human Services sometime in early to mid-April, the month the coronavirus was to "miraculously" disappear, according to the president.

In reality, it was the month that reports about Trump's displeasure with Fauci began to surface. Caputo deleted more than 1,000 of tweets in early April, many of which were graphic or patently offensive, suggesting he was not expecting to be hired at the time.

Officials have suggested to Salon, in the context of Fauci's recent media appearances, that if HHS were indeed trying to silence the longtime public servant, it's not doing a good job of it.

It's unlikely that the administration could silence Fauci outright without drawing intense public backlash, but Caputo has selectively muzzled the eminent disease expert, especially when he darkens or contradicts White House messaging. Per the Post:

The tension between the White House and Fauci was on full display last Sunday, when CBS host Margaret Brennan told millions of viewers that "Face the Nation" had tried for three months to interview him.

White House communications officials, who must approve television appearances related to the coronavirus, responded by allowing Fauci spots this week on PBS NewsHour, a CNN town hall with Sanjay Gupta and NBC's "Meet the Press" during the prime Sunday morning slot, according to one person familiar with the situation.

Then Fauci joined a Facebook Live event on Tuesday with Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.), disputing Trump's assertions that a lower death rate showed the country's progress against the pandemic. Fauci called it "a false narrative" and warned, "Don't get yourself into false complacency."

Fauci did not end up making any of the scheduled appearances. The White House canceled them after his Tuesday remarks, according to the person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to relate behind-the-scenes conversations.

Additionally, Fauci himself has insinuated that the Trump administration was suppressing his voice. A page dedicated to his media appearances on his agency's website is missing the months of May and June entirely.

Caputo told Salon that he handles all of Fauci's media and press and has final say on media calendars for "six different doctors and scientists," including Fauci.

Dr. Deborah Birx, CDC head Dr. Robert Redfield and Surgeon General Jerome Adams are also under HHS purview, as are Assistant Secretary for Health Adm. Brett Giroir and HHS Secretary Alex Azar.

When Salon asked Caputo about the Post's report that he had thwarted some of Fauci's television appearances, which including an invitation from MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, Caputo replied that he simply cycled officials through in rotation.

"We have six different scientists and doctors who we use," he explained. "We get requests from different networks and different shows, and we have far more than just one person we work with. You can't have all of them on at the same time."

"Sometimes we are utilizing different voices and different scientists. Fauci is a particularly good one," he said. "But every day, every network show, presents a different challenge, and we have a wide variety of solutions."

Caputo then asked if this story was going to run while Fauci's PBS interview aired last Friday. He was told that was not a goal.

"You would look really bad if you did," he said, emphasizing how "stupid" it would be to run a story about him blocking Fauci while Fauci was on TV.

"I chose Fauci for PBS tonight," Caputo continued, contradicting the Post report that the White House gave PBS the nod. "Every single booker asks for Fauci. I give them the person who fits."

Caputo declined to get into the nitty-gritty of his formula for determining who fits, but did explain his process. "I instruct my team to provide the outlet and point of contact, but not to bother me with the name of the scientist or doctor," he said. "I can do that."

If that's true, then the gatekeeper of public access to critical information from health officials does not care about what information media outlets want. It is a highly unorthodox way to run media relations at any time, not to mention at the federal government's public health nerve center in the middle of a pandemic.

Journalists often contact government experts precisely because they have specific questions for a specific official, based on that official's area of medical or scientific expertise. But Caputo, who has no medical or scientific background, suggested that he considers nothing beyond availability and his own gut instincts.

(The voicemail message at the HHS Office of Public Affairs instructs journalists to "please leave your name, outlet, request and contact information.")

The Post report complicates Caputo's claim that he calls the shots, alleging that he doesn't make decisions about Fauci without first consulting the White House:

Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Michael Caputo, a longtime Trump ally, approves Fauci's television appearances, with input from the White House, said one of the senior administration officials. Several White House aides view Fauci's interviews as unhelpful and say they're frustrated he has expressed interest in appearing on programs such as MSNBC's "Rachel Maddow Show," which are hostile to the administration. That one was rejected.

Salon asked Caputo why the deputy press secretary for HHS would tell employees not to "bother" him by including a scientist's name.

"What's with your attitude?" Caputo responded. "Don't give me this — this attitude."

Salon responded that no disrespect was intended, and Caputo instructed us to try another press contact at the department. (Salon had done so.)

Salon then asked Caputo, twice, whether he had spoken about Roger Stone at any time with HHS officials or with White House hiring chief John McEntee, or with McEntee's deputy, 23-year-old James Bacon.

Caputo hung up.

Reached for comment, a spokeswoman for the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Disease said, "The NIAID Office of Communications and Government Relations coordinates media interviews for Dr. Fauci, the director of NIAID. NIAID (part of NIH), like all agencies part of HHS, has always followed HHS's coordinating process for interviews."

The spokeswoman did not reply when asked whether that process now involved Caputo, or when he took over Fauci's calendar.

Michael Caputo has spent a sizable portion of his colorful life in political PR, or what might appear to be PR.

After graduating from high school in Buffalo, New York, Caputo did PR for the Army. He left the Army for college, after which he promoted Ronald Reagan's agenda in Central America with Lt. Col. Oliver North. He also worked media relations for President George H.W. Bush's losing 1992 campaign.

Somewhere in there he befriended Roger Stone and took up an apprenticeship with the modern master of political dark arts. For a while Caputo was Stone's driver.

After the Soviet Union collapsed, Caputo moved to Russia, where he worked for President Boris Yeltsin and later as a consultant charged with rehabilitating Vladimir Putin's image in the U.S. He has claimed he was once shot in Russia during a drunken donnybrook.

When Caputo returned to the U.S. he returned into the GOP operative world, in 2007 running a website designed to smear Gov. Eliot Spitzer of New York. Spitzer was forced to resign the following year amid a prostitution scandal.

At some point Caputo had befriended Donald Trump, and in 2014 he conceived a PR scheme to secure Trump's bid for the Buffalo Bills NFL team, creating a fake organization and hiring a fake founder — a double-amputee cancer survivor — to gin up sympathy. 

Caputo used the organization to orchestrate a bare-knuckle smear campaign targeting Trump's chief competitor for the Buffalo team, Jon Bon Jovi, who later said he needed "years of therapy" to get over it.

Bon Jovi and Trump both lost their bids to buy the Bills.

In the spring 2016 Caputo joined the Trump campaign, but was forced to quit in June when he celebrated the sacking of former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski by tweeting, "Ding dong the witch is dead!", adding a picture of the Wicked Witch of the East from "The Wizard of Oz," her feet protruding from under the house that crushed her.

A month earlier, when Caputo was still with the campaign, he and Roger Stone met with a Russian expatriate living in Florida named Henry Greenberg — his original name was Henry Oknyansky — who offered to sell them dirt on Hillary Clinton.

In 2018 the Washington Post acquired text messages between Caputo and Stone in which they called Greenberg "the Russian." In his earlier testimony to Congress, Caputo had claimed that he and Stone did not know Greenberg and/or Oknyansky was Russian.

That reaped him high praise:

Former special counsel Robert Mueller also interviewed Caputo during his investigation into Russian election interference. Caputo likened those interviews to a proctology exam, adding that Mueller knew "more about the campaign than anyone who ever worked there."

Mueller's team never charged Caputo with any crime, but they did indict and convict Stone, whom Caputo counts a close friend to this day.

During the campaign, Stone had communicated with "Guccifer 2.0," the apparent nom de guerre for a group of Russian intelligence officials who funneled stolen Democratic Party emails to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Stone later communicated with Assange directly, and was alleged in testimony by Paul Manafort, Rick Gates and Michael Cohen to have told Trump that email dumps were coming.

This contradicted claims that Trump made to Mueller in sworn written responses.

In January, with the Senate trial of Trump's impeachment kicking into high gear, Caputo published a book titled, "The Ukraine Hoax: How Decades of Corruption in the Former Soviet Republic Led to Trump's Phony Impeachment."

The next month the Senate acquitted Trump, and Stone was sentenced to 40 months in federal prison for obstructing a congressional inquiry into the president, among other felonies.

It is still not clear how or why Caputo's name came before HHS.

Sometime in April, however, someone placed him in the Department of Health and Human Services — although he has no background in medicine or science, and the United States was in the opening weeks of the worst health crisis in a century.

That was the month that Trump had foretold would "miraculously" vanquish the global coronavirus pandemic, and the month when Fauci's future in the administration was first seriously thrown into doubt.

"Installing Caputo allows the White House to further control [Alex] Azar's communications strategy," Politico reported at the time. Administration officials reportedly believed that Azar, the HHS secretary, had been leaking negative stories about Trump to the press in order to buttress his own record on the pandemic response.

It didn't take long for Caputo's deleted tweets to surface.

In late April, CNN uncovered more than 1,300 tweets, many of them racist, misogynistic, cruel and riddled with coronavirus conspiracy theories. Caputo had posted the tweets between February and early April, mere days before his on-boarding at HHS, indicating that he might not himself have expected to be hired for a government position. 

Responding to a conspiracy theory that Americans brought the coronavirus to China, Caputo tweeted on March 12 that "millions of Chinese suck the blood out of rabid bats as an appetizer and eat the ass out of anteaters."

Caputo suggested in a March 8 tweet that a Democratic "strategy to defeat" Trump required hundreds of thousands of American deaths. He referenced James Hodgkinson, a left-wing activist with record of domestic violence who shot Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., during a congressional baseball practice in 2017.

"Coronavirus is the Democrats' new Russia, their new Ukraine," he added. "And nobody will believe them except their zombies."

"For the Democrat 2020 victory strategy to work, 100,000+ Americans have to die," he posted March 11. "For the Democrat 2020 victory strategy to work, you have to believe the media."

A few days after that story broke, CNN unearthed still more deleted tweets, these tracing back to 2019 and including vile remarks about women.

In December 2019, Caputo posted a reply to former FBI employee Lisa Page, a favorite target of the president's, with a crass reference to oral sex, writing, "what's that on your chin."

In another, he wrote:

"I never thought you broke the law, Lisa — sleeping around with married men is quite legal. Your political opinions also aren't illegal, just unethical at work, like your affairs. You got dragged into this for hate and love — your hate for Trump and your love for, well, you know." He added a GIF of a train heading into a tunnel.

In other tweets from this year, Caputo kept calling women "dogface": "look at this dogface"; "I would never sleep with you, dog-face"; "you have a dogface."

In October 2019, with impeachment in full swing, Caputo attacked then-Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, firing off a series of tweets calling him a "piece of shit," a "traitor," a "scumbag" and a "seditionist."

CNN has cached the tweets here.

Additionally, Caputo has apparently owed substantial sums in back taxes, in both New York and Florida. He once complained that the Mueller investigation had almost bankrupted him, but he appears to have been saved from that fate when his self-published GoFundMe page pulled in more than $350,000, outstripping its stated goal by $200,000.

Even a top administration salary, while not petty, is certainly not lucrative, and deputy press secretary positions normally go to junior or up-and-coming officials, not veteran operatives of Caputo's experience who do not take well to bureaucracy and do not expect to be bossed around.

After Salon's call with Caputo, an HHS press officer sent an email offering to field follow-ups questions. Our follow-up emails were unanswered.

The media contact page at the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases — the agency Fauci has helmed for more than 35 years — says "Content last reviewed April 7, 2020."

Fauci's own "in the news" page shows a conspicuous two-month gap in on-air appearances between April and July.

In a contentious June 24 call with reporters, Caputo blasted back at questions about the White House's apparent efforts to discredit Fauci, a Presidential Medal of Freedom honoree.

"The reason why we put this call together so quickly and why we have upwards of 75 reporters on this call is because you've been spun up," he yawped, after going nearly an hour without saying anything.

"Somebody has given you disinformation," said Caputo, who himself had spread coronavirus disinformation with palpable contempt just a few months prior. "Do you understand? I'm old enough to remember when it was considered dishonest to undermine public confidence in the public health system."

The PR veteran later took a more subtle approach.

"We have great faith in the capacity of all of our scientists and doctors on the coronavirus taskforce to impart necessary public health information," Caputo said in a statement. "People like Admiral (Brett) Giroir, Surgeon General (Jerome) Adams and others are carrying these messages very effectively."

He did not mention Fauci.

The White House and Roger Stone did not reply to multiple requests for comment. Fauci could not be reached for comment.

By Roger Sollenberger

Roger Sollenberger was a staff writer at Salon (2020-21). Follow him on Twitter @SollenbergerRC.

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