Observations About Politico’s New Michael Caputo Profile
…and Spending Time at HHS in 2020 Amid the COVID Outbreak
In animating, descriptive fashion, Politico writer Michael Kruse’s new profile of pro-Trump GOP operative Michael Caputo vividly captures the many colorful, complex facets of the Buffalo, NY native’s personality and background as he continues to recover from the life-threatening illness that occurred during his 2020 tenure at the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services (HHS).
While working since Spring on a longer-form, yet-to-be-completed policy piece about the cumulative Trump/Biden COVID response and needed reform at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the Politico piece is timely, offering the opportunity to make several truncated observations pertinent to Caputo’s time at HHS.
First things first, and some context: I’ve known Caputo since 1992. He’s a good friend, but don’t always see eye to eye on politics. Unlike the many others interviewed for the piece, my Venn Diagram intersection with Caputo centers not around Trump-world, politics or business — it’s live music in general, and seeing Grateful Dead shows in particular. Offbeat? For sure. But that’s the context I know him best.
I’ve also always been direct with him. I told Caputo, flat-out, that If asked by Politico for my reaction when first learning the White House tapped him to serve as HHS Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs — a fair question — I’d state my honest opinion… on the record. I told Michael Kruse I was “stunned” about Caputo’s HHS appointment due to his “voluble and volatile” nature — combined with a lack of formal health policy experience.
Yet, Caputo was nonplussed when I informed him what I’d conveyed. “Well, it’s hardly breaking news I can be voluble and volatile,” he nonchalantly observed. This reaction reflects the laid back, self-deprecating side of Caputo with which I’m familiar.
That being said, he’s surely made partisan enemies through the years. But he’s gained far more friends inside and outside of politics charmed by his humor, intelligence and too-often obscured sense of humanity. It’s no surprise many of the reporters with whom he’s battled are quite fond of him. His stories, anecdotes and witticisms are amusing. Caputo’s human side, especially when discussing his young daughters, is more representative of his spirit than partisan vitriol.
As for working at HHS — and what I saw first-hand — I eventually took Caputo up on his unique offer to take a short leave from my health communications firm from June-December 2020 to serve in the Assistant Secretary’s office, as a senior advisor. With an eldercare and pharmacy issues background germane to COVID, it would be fascinating, I thought, to engage with agencies like FDA, CMS, CDC and others more or less in a consulting and content creation capacity. From my prior life in campaigns, I was accustomed to and exhilarated by immersion into chaos. At HHS, I wasn’t disappointed. This would be the very best short-term project I’d done in years.
What’s the bottom line on Caputo?
The level at which he performed when I arrived in June, 2020 impressed me at the outset. He was nuanced and strategic — far from the bull in the china shop I anticipated. I was admittedly surprised. While Carol Leonig and Phil Rucker of the Washington Post, and many others, have done their own exhaustive enterprise reporting on HHS during this period, the following are my own quick, basic takeaways:
First, from the first day I walked into the HHS maelstrom, the media buzz was that HHS Sec. Alex Azar would soon be removed. Caputo — ostensibly sent by the White House to “watch” and “monitor” HHS activities — in fact, contributed to bringing about a more stable operational environment between HHS and the White House, at a critical juncture of the pandemic response.
Caputo’s achievement had a salient impact: it enabled Sec. Azar and his management team to spend the precious summer period focused on Operation Warp Speed’s (OWS) expedited vaccine development timetable — not bogged down in internecine White House combat, concerned solely with day to day survival. Caputo expertly played the inside game — leveraging his White House imprimatur to ultimately help the HHS Secretary focus on the prize: vaccine availability by year’s end.
I would argue Caputo’s successful effort to stabilize the HHS-White House relationship was his signal achievement.
Second, I saw Caputo reach out to the key doctors to help facilitate the personal relationships with whom trust and rapport was required. After all, he was the new “White House guy” on the scene, with uncertain motives. Parallel with helping to stabilize HHS, he had breakfasts with Dr. Fauci; he took walks around the Mall with FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn; he had CDC Director Robert Redfield to his office for expressos. Caputo intelligently reached out across the board. He engaged, and extended a helpful, ‘service-oriented’ approach to key HHS officials like Asst. Sec., Adm. Brett Giroir — thrust into the high visibility role of COVID testing czar.
The net result of his relationship-building spadework was, I perceived, that the doctors and HHS at-large were pleasantly surprised by Caputo, his approach and modus operandi. I also believe it’s no coincidence several of the doctors continued to help Caputo throughout the year regarding treatment for his ultimate cancer diagnosis.
Third, and near and dear to both our hearts, we attempted to initiate at HHS the discussion and development of best practice protocols to help concert venue management find viable ways to proceed with live music festivals during the late summer and fall 2020 season. This, we insisted inside the building, was just as much about jobs as it was about COVID. We reached out to several live music acquaintances to initiate dialogue, but efforts on our end were premature. COVID simply could not be controlled at that time.
A full year later, bands, venues and management are still wrestling with the viability of large-scale, festival performances. At the time, though, this was well worth exploring. It was a good use of time and intent: the furtherance of live music and the inherent dependent jobs. Caputo helped get this off the ground.
After all is said and done, there’s been plenty of negative coverage surrounding Caputo’s tenure at HHS — some warranted, some not. He knows that. But as always, there’s more to the story, which is still unfolding daily as it relates to the ongoing COVID battle.
As far as I’m concerned, the entire Trump OWS team deserves credit for marshalling the power and expertise of the U.S. government, our military and national industrial base to bring COVID vaccines to the fore, in record time. Likewise, President Biden’s team deserves excellent marks for its initial vaccine distribution effort — especially as it relates to underserved, vulnerable communities and populations. Of course, there’s a long way to go.
Trump and Biden have both been pulled through the media meat-grinder — both retrospectively and contemporaneously — on a daily basis. But as more is surely needed, the vaccines and initial wide-scale immunization of the U.S. populace amount to an American success story.
With so much ongoing confusion surrounding data and the extent to which policymakers of both parties are “following the science,” COVID pays no heed to the simplistic Red versus Blue cable news construct.
Just as Caputo wishes he’d done some things differently at HHS, so, too, does everyone involved in the ongoing pandemic response — from its onset, until this very day.