Michael Caputo, the communications chief at the US health department, is stepping down from his post for two months after accusing government scientists of being part of a criminal conspiracy to undermine the president.
Mr Caputo will stand aside from his position for 60 days, the department said in a statement on Wednesday, days after recording a Facebook video in which he accused public health professionals of forming a seditious “resistance unit” to damage Donald Trump and help his Democratic rival Joe Biden.
The video was widely criticised by public health officials, including Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It was also symptomatic of wider tensions between Mr Trump and many of the independent scientists in charge of formulating his administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Mr Caputo said in the video: “There are scientists who work for this government who do not want America to get well, not until after Joe Biden is president.” But he also suggested he was having health problems, saying his “mental health has definitely failed”.
On Wednesday, Mr Caputo blamed a “lymphatic issue” for the stress he said he was under, adding he needed to take medical leave to “pursue necessary screenings”.
He has reportedly apologised to staff for his comments, which were criticised on Wednesday by Dr Redfield.
Dr Redfield told a Senate committee he had been “deeply saddened” by Mr Caputo’s remarks. Hours later, the health department announced Mr Caputo’s temporary departure, saying: “Michael Caputo has decided to take a leave of absence to focus on his health and the wellbeing of his family.”
Mr Caputo’s appointment in April was controversial, given his lack of healthcare expertise and reputation as a pugnacious supporter of Mr Trump. Before he took his position, Mr Caputo reportedly deleted a series of tweets in which he made sexist and racist remarks.
Paul Alexander, the health professor Mr Caputo hired to advise him on medical issues and who has been accused of trying to interfere with CDC publications, would also leave his position, the department said.
The move highlights recent tensions between Mr Trump’s allies within the administration and public health officials over how the country should respond to the pandemic.
Mr Trump has been touring the country holding campaign events without wearing a mask in an apparent effort to bolster his message that the disease is on the wane. He has also mocked Mr Biden for always wearing a face covering in public.
Despite Mr Trump’s comments, Dr Redfield on Wednesday urged Americans to continue wearing masks, suggesting they could be more effective than a vaccine in halting the spread of the disease.
He told the Senate health committee: “We have clear scientific evidence they work. I might even go so far as to say that this face mask is more guaranteed to protect me against Covid than when I take a Covid vaccine.”
He added: “If I don’t get an immune response, the vaccine’s not going to protect me, this face mask will.”