Under Trump, health officials sought to control the message and limit interactions with the media as the pandemic raged through America, raising questions about violations of anti-gag rules.
Citing documents obtained by BuzzFeed News, two independent government watchdog groups are calling for an investigation into whether a top health official in the Trump administration violated federal anti-gag laws in trying to silence members of the CDC and the Department of Health and Human Services.
BuzzFeed News has reported that Michael Caputo, a controversial Republican operative handpicked last year by then-president Donald Trump to control messaging around the coronavirus pandemic, lambasted CDC and HHS personnel for discussing COVID-19 response plans with reporters and demanded to know how an interview conducted with an HHS official was approved.
In addition, Caputo’s science adviser at the time, Paul Alexander, sent a lengthy email last August to Caputo, former CDC director Robert Redfield, and other health officials encouraging them to suppress and edit the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. “CDC to me appears to be writing hit pieces on the administration and meant at this time to impact school re-openings and they then send it to the media knowing it is deceiving. I ask it to be stopped now!” Alexander wrote in the email, which was first obtained by Politico.
On Tuesday, the two watchdog groups — Open the Government and the Government Accountability Project — sent a letter requesting action from the Office of Special Counsel, a federal agency that protects government employee rights. The groups argued that Caputo’s and Alexander’s edicts were aimed at stifling HHS and CDC employees’ free speech rights and violated the anti-gag provision in the 2012 federal Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act, which states that any restriction on employees’ speech has to be accompanied by language informing them of their rights to blow the whistle.
“Separate Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests by BuzzFeed News and our organizations recently returned records evidencing these violations in primary documents, including email correspondence and agency communication policies,” the letter to Henry Kerner, head of the Office of Special Counsel, states.
Referencing protections for federal workers and the dire consequences of a deadly pandemic, the letter says: “The alarming violations of these rights by HHS leadership require a strong response. Otherwise, a workforce chilled from disclosing substantial and specific threats to public health and safety may never thaw. This chilling effect can be especially deadly during a historic health emergency.”
Because Caputo and Alexander have left the government, they can’t face any repercussions. The Office of Special Counsel could still order HHS to rescind the orders Caputo issued and remind employees of their whistleblower rights, the watchdog groups said.
The groups have previously been successful in getting the Office of Special Counsel to probe similar incidents aimed at silencing federal employees at the CDC and the US Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Lisa Rosenberg, executive director of Open the Government, told BuzzFeed News in a statement: “It is unconscionable that the public’s right to information is hampered at a time when the need for accurate and timely scientific data could not be more urgent.”
“These revelations underscore the need for more transparency at HHS and for the Biden Administration to repeal autocratic gag orders,” she said.
Mark Weber, who succeeded Caputo, told BuzzFeed News that HHS issued a new media policy this month that appears to unwind restrictions Caputo implemented. In response to questions from BuzzFeed News about Caputo and whether he ran afoul of the anti-gag law, Weber quoted the new media guidance, which says:
“HHS is committed to a culture of openness with the media and public that values the free exchange of ideas, data, and information and doing so in a manner that is timely, responsive, and accurate. In keeping with the desire for a culture of openness, HHS employees may, consistent with this policy, speak to members of the press about their work.”
Caputo, who was also a campaign aide to Trump during his 2016 presidential bid and is a close confidant of political strategist Roger Stone, was tapped by Trump last April as assistant secretary of public affairs at HHS. Soon after, Caputo hired Alexander, a Canadian health researcher. The two have been accused of politicizing the agency and undermining the work of scientists; more than 100 pages of emails obtained by BuzzFeed News highlighted some of those actions.
The letter cites Caputo’s reaction to reporting last summer by CNN senior medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen, who sent an email to Caputo trying to confirm that HHS’s vaccine initiative, dubbed Operation Warp Speed, was “working on a vaccine education campaign for the public to increase the chances that people will get the COVID vaccine when it comes out.”
Caputo, the watchdogs’ letter says, “sought to squash the story,” suggesting to Cohen her source was wrong and “does not have actual visibility of the issue.”
“I’d hate to see CNN put out an [sic] wildly incorrect story,” he wrote.
Cohen responded saying her sources were Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Kristen Nordlund, a CDC spokesperson. Caputo then fired off an angry email to then–CDC director Robert Redfield, Nordlund, and other HHS and CDC officials.
A month later, in July, Caputo sent an email to Nina Witkofsky, then the acting chief of staff at the CDC, and other HHS and CDC officials stating that “according to longstanding policy, no media interviews are permitted” without HHS clearance. “No exceptions.”
The next day Caputo sent an email to Redfield, Witkofsky, and other CDC officials demanding to know the name of the press officer who approved three NPR interviews.
“I need to know who did it and we will look into the matter,” Caputo wrote.
Irvin McCullough, the deputy director for legislation with the Government Accountability Project and one of the signers of the letter calling for an investigation, told BuzzFeed News Caputo’s emails are a textbook example of illegally gagging a federal employee.
“Someone reading that might get the impression they can’t blow the whistle or disclose information to the media during a public health emergency,” said McCullough, who has recently published four op-eds about federal workers rights under the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act. “It’s a clear-cut violation of an employee’s anti-gag rights.”
Alexander, meanwhile, sent politically charged emails to numerous officials about masks and about allegations of racism at the agency. In one email he asserted that the media has “no concern for lives lost” due to COVID-19.
Neither Caputo nor Alexander could be reached for comment.
Caputo’s tenure at HHS ended on Sept. 16, 2020, a couple of days after he posted a video on his Facebook page accusing CDC scientists of “sedition” and being part of a “resistance unit” that was plotting against Trump. Alexander exited shortly thereafter.