A top spokesman for the U.S. Health and Human Services Department angrily unloaded on dozens of journalists Wednesday, accusing them of getting “spun” by what he said was a misleading story about federal funding getting eliminated for 13 coronavirus testing sites.
The tirade by Michael Caputo, the spokesman, led to the abrupt termination of a conference call that HHS was hosting for the reporters with Adm. Brett Giroir, the Trump administration’s Covid-19 testing czar.
“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,” fumed Caputo, interjecting on the call for the first time after nearly an hour without speaking
“Somebody has given you disinformation,” Caputo said loudly. “Do you understand? I’m old enough to remember when it was considered dishonest to undermine public confidence in the public health system.”
“That’s what the people who spun you on this story are trying to do,” said Caputo, assistant secretary of HHS for public affairs, who was appointed to his job in April after years as a Republican operative in New York and work on President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign for the White House.
Caputo, and to a less strident degree, Giroir, objected to a number of news stories that detailed how the federal government is eliminating, by June 30, funding of 13 community-based coronavirus testing sites in five states. Seven of the sites are in Texas.
Giroir spent a significant amount of time during that call detailing how those sites will remain open, albeit with state and local funding, and that there already are hundreds of other Covid-19 testing locations run by private entities that are being supported either directly or indirectly with federal money.
Giroir said on the call that testing capacity nationwide would not be reduced by the elimination of funding to the 13 sites, but instead would actually be expanded.
Toward what was the end of the call, one reporter was called on to ask a question, but Caputo chimed in after the journalist failed to be heard.
“This is less than one one-thousandth of the testing facilities in this nation. Less than one one-thousandth!” Caputo said, his voice rising.
“And yet you’re spending an hour on the telephone call and we are taking people away from the fight against the coronavirus so that you can … so that your information can be corrected!” Caputo said.
“The people who told you this are undermining the public health system,” he said.
“I urge you, and I’m on the record with you, to call them back and ask them why are they working to undermine the public health system in the middle of a pandemic,” Caputo said.
“Please report this accurately. Thank you very much.”
Caputo kept up the heat after this article first was published, taking issue with its headline.
If the CNBC article’s reporters “knew me, they would know I didn’t lose my temper,” he wrote in a tweet. “Extending call 20 min isn’t ending it abruptly. But their story is correct: reporters are being spun by cynical partisans undermining the public health system during a pandemic.”
And in replying to Washington Post reporter Paige Cunningham’s tweet that he had been “yelling” at another reporter during the call, Caputo wrote: “If I were yelling, you’d know it Paige. We kept the call going 20 extra minutes to help you see the folly of this planted story. Need more time?”
Caputo, before becoming HHS’ spokesman, already had a reputation as an aggressive, sometimes profane political advocate.
He resigned from Trump’s campaign in July 2016 after tweeting “Ding Dong the witch is dead” in response to Trump firing his then-campaign manager Corey Lewandowski.
Caputo is a longtime friend of Roger Stone, a fellow Republican operative, who last year was convicted of lying to Congress and witness tampering.
Caputo’s installation at HHS was widely seen as a move to check the department’s secretary, Alex Azar, whom Trump reportedly was unhappy with at the time over handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Caputo is also the author of a book, “The Ukraine Hoax: How Decades of Corruption in the Former Soviet Republic Led to Trump’s Phony Impeachment.”