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Top HHS spokesman apologizes to staff for accusing government scientists of sedition

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 01: Former Trump campaign official Michael Caputo arrives at the Hart Senate Office building to be interviewed by Senate Intelligence Committee staffers, on May 1, 2018 in Washington, DC. The committee is investigating alleged Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

(CNN) — Department of Health and Human Services spokesman Michael Caputo on Tuesday apologized to staffers for a rant in which he accused career government scientists of “sedition” and working to undermine President Donald Trump, multiple sources familiar with the situation told CNN.

Caputo — a fierce defender of the President who was appointed to his post as assistant secretary of public affairs for HHS not long after the coronavirus pandemic began — mentioned a series of conspiracy theories in a Sunday live video on his personal Facebook page, including that there is a “resistance unit” against Trump inside the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Caputo claimed that he thinks former Vice President Joe Biden will refuse to concede the election should Trump win, and political violence will ensue.

A source familiar with the matter said Caputo portrayed himself as a victim in his apology, but apologized for putting HHS Secretary Alex Azar in a bad light.

Caputo’s status at HHS is uncertain at this point and he was already treading on thin ice at the agency before the revelations about his comments on Facebook, a second source familiar with the situation said. It is unclear whether any action to move Caputo out of his current position is imminent, that source added, but discussions regarding Caputo’s future are ongoing. The first source said Caputo did not bring up his future in the apology.

A third source familiar with the matter said Caputo apologized to HHS staff Tuesday morning because he had embarrassed them, particularly career officials, and he felt badly about it. He also apologized to Azar on Tuesday for putting the secretary in a position of having to deal with the fallout of Caputo’s remarks, the source said.

The source added that it’s possible Caputo will take a leave of absence to address a medical issue, but a final decision has not been made.

Caputo is dealing with potential health issues that could force him to step aside, according to a fourth source familiar with the situation. Politico was first to report on Caputo’s apology and The New York Times was first to report that he is considering a leave of absence.

A source close to the White House coronavirus task force said Azar has been unhappy for some time with Caputo as deputy secretary. The source close to the White House said Caputo, who is a longtime Trump political operative, was forced upon Azar and the latest controversy likely won’t help his standing with the secretary.

During his Sunday broadside, Caputo lambasted the CDC, baselessly claiming that scientists “deep in the bowels of the CDC have given up science and become political animals.”

The scientists “haven’t gotten out of their sweatpants except for meetings at coffee shops” to plot “how they’re going to attack Donald Trump next,” Caputo added.

Caputo asserted that he was under attack by the media, that his physical health was in question and that his “mental health has definitely failed.” The Times reported that he “sounded anguished” over the nation’s coronavirus death toll — which has reached more than 195,000 dead, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. He warned people in the video to wear masks when attending the President’s campaign rallies.

Caputo also said he expected to stay in his position because the President supported him.

“I’m not going anywhere,” Caputo said in the video. “I swear to God, as God is my witness, I am not stopping.”

Caputo declined to discuss the matter any further in a brief phone interview with CNN later Monday, except to say he made the comments as he was dealing with some of the pressure caused by harassment to himself and his family over the last several days. He added that harassment included what he deemed to be death threats.

The fall-out following his Facebook rant Sunday is one of dual controversies encircling Caputo. A federal health official told CNN Saturday that amid tension between the administration and the CDC, Caputo and his team had demanded to see weekly science reports from the CDC before they are released.

Officials within HHS had defended the demand, saying the CDC fell under the agency’s umbrella and that all communications and public documents needed to be cleared at the top.

Politico first reported about the pressure being put on the CDC regarding these reports.