(CNN)A close ally of President Donald Trump who was serving as a top official in the Department of Health and Human Services repeatedly sent complaints about how the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was handling a media request to the agency’s director in an apparent attempt to intimidate an agency communications official, according to emails shared with CNN.
The emails show Michael Caputo, who served as the assistant secretary for public affairs at HHS until taking a leave of absence earlier this week, confronting a CDC spokesperson for responding to a question from CNN about a vaccine education campaign.
“In what world did you think it was your job to announce an Administration public service announcement campaign to CNN?” Caputo said to the spokesperson on June 27, copying top agency officials on the email — including Dr. Robert Redfield, the agency’s director, who is tasked with leading the nation’s health protection agency during the middle of a once-in-a-century pandemic.
The emails are a part of a pattern showing Caputo’s hostile attitude toward CDC officials. Earlier this week, Caputo announced he will take a two-month leave of absence from his post after apologizing for a conspiracy theory-laden rant he made against CDC scientists, alleging a “resistance unit” within the department and accusing CDC officials of “sedition.”
He has been accused by critics of politicizing the CDC and the HHS response to the coronavirus pandemic. CNN reported last week that Caputo and his team had demanded to see weekly science reports out of the CDC before they were released, with some HHS communications officials pushing to change the reports’ language so as not to undermine Trump’s political message. In response to that assertion, Caputo criticized the CDC with conspiratorial accusations.
The New York Times was first to report on the email from Caputo to the CDC spokesperson.
The emails show a CNN reporter had reached out to the CDC spokesperson with a question about a vaccine education program that Dr. Anthony Fauci hinted at in a late June CNN interview. The spokesperson referred the reporter to Caputo, who then decided to escalate the issue.
When the CDC spokesperson apologized to Caputo and stated that they merely referred CNN to him and did not confirm the campaign, Caputo snapped back with another terse message.
“We will discuss this on a teleconference tomorrow. I want your HR representative in attendance,” Caputo said.
In a subsequent message he added, “I’m adding Dr Redfield back in this email exchange. Do not remove him again.”
Asked about the incident with the CDC communications official, a person close to the situation said, “We quickly learned her comment was inadvertent. She is a very talented communicator, and her comment warranted no action.”
Democratic National Committee spokeswoman and adviser Lily Adams accused the administration of an orchestrated effort to push out experts at the public’s expense in response to the emails.
“With every day that goes by, it becomes more clear just how much Trump and his administration worked to lie to the American people and muzzle and intimidate experts who wanted to warn the country about the severity of the coronavirus,” Adams said. “At every level, the Trump administration put the President’s personal political considerations ahead of the lives of thousands of Americans.”
The Times also outlined at least two other instances of Caputo berating CDC staff.
The paper referenced June emails from HHS political appointee Dr. Paul Alexander lambasting the CDC principal deputy director Dr. Anne Schuchat’s public comments that “we have way too much virus across the country” as an attempt at humiliating Trump. Caputo forwarded the emails to Redfield, an example of efforts by HHS advisers to bully CDC staff, the Times reported.
A staffer in HHS’ White House liaison office later contacted CDC inquiring about Schuchat’s background — imparting a sense among some CDC officials that some wanted Schuchat — who had worked at the CDC for more than three decades — fired, the Times reported.
In July, Caputo demanded that CDC communications officials identify the press officer who allowed for several NPR interviews with a veteran CDC epidemiologist after HHS had taken over CDC pandemic data collection, according to the paper.
“I need to know who did it,” Caputo wrote, according to emails reviewed by the Times.
“I have not received a response to my email for 20 hours. This is unacceptable,” Caputo followed up, per the paper. “I need this information to properly manage department communications. If you disobey my directions, you will be held accountable.”
This is a breaking story and will be updated.