White House snubs Azar, installs Trump loyalist Michael Caputo as HHS spokesperson

Caputo is a longtime friend of Trump ally Roger Stone and former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, both of whom were convicted of crimes in the last two years. Caputo wrote last year in POLITICO magazine about his fears after being wrapped up in Robert Mueller’s probe of Trump, which Caputo said had led to threats on his life.

“I’ve installed shotgun stations in my home, and I carry a concealed weapon wherever it’s legal,” Caputo wrote.

Caputo once lived in Moscow, where he worked for Boris Yeltsin and also performed public relations work for a subsidiary to Russian state-owned energy conglomerate Gazprom. Caputo told the Buffalo News in 2016 that he wasn’t “proud of the work today, but at the time, [Russian President Vladimir] Putin wasn’t such a bad guy.”

While Caputo has decades of expertise in communications, he has not worked in a high-level health care role before.

However, White House officials are looking to shake up HHS communications after growing perturbed by a series of news reports, including a story this week in The Daily Beast that called Azar “a rare and unlikely hero” inside the Trump administration — an article that was heavily circulated by White House officials.

“People who know him say he believes in his mission even if the president doesn’t believe in him,” Daily Beast columnist Eleanor Clift wrote on Monday. Clift told POLITICO on Wednesday that she wrote the story after reading favorable coverage of Azar in publications like The New York Times and The Washington Post and did not speak with Azar directly.

Installing Caputo allows the White House to further control Azar’s communications strategy, said two individuals with knowledge of the pending move.

HHS has cycled through four communications chiefs in the past three years, including two who have since left the department. Ryan Murphy has been serving as the acting assistant secretary for public affairs since last October, after previous communications chief Judy Stecker was promoted to serve as Azar’s deputy chief of staff.

Unlike his counterparts in HHS leadership, Caputo worked as recently as last month as a registered foreign agent.

He lobbied lawmakers including Reps. Tom Emmer (R-Minn.) and Chris Smith (R-N.J.) on behalf of Somalian President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed last year, according to a disclosure filing. He helped convince The Buffalo News to run a story on Mohamed during a visit to the U.S. last year and set up meetings for him with lawmakers and administration officials. “All meetings and pending meetings were cancelled by President Mohamed per Department of State recommendation,” Caputo wrote in the disclosure.

The Somali government paid him $45,000 for his services.

Caputo also set up meetings for a Ukrainian delegation that visited Washington last month, securing sitdowns with Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and a Wall Street Journal reporter, among others.

Theodoric Meyer contributed to this report.