Truly Disturbing

Statements by an HHS official underscore the rot of this administration.

” The White House President Trump Participates in a Roundtable” by The White House is in the Public Domain, CC0

The NYT reported yesterday: Trump Health Aide Pushes Bizarre Conspiracies and Warns of Armed Revolt.

The top communications official at the powerful cabinet department in charge of combating the coronavirus made outlandish and false accusations on Sunday that career government scientists were engaging in “sedition” in their handling of the pandemic and that left-wing hit squads were preparing for armed insurrection after the election.

Michael R. Caputo, the assistant secretary of public affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services, accused the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of harboring a “resistance unit” determined to undermine President Trump, even if that opposition bolsters the Covid-19 death toll.

Mr. Caputo, who has faced intense criticism for leading efforts to warp C.D.C. weekly bulletins to fit Mr. Trump’s pandemic narrative, suggested that he personally could be in danger from opponents of the administration. “If you carry guns, buy ammunition, ladies and gentlemen, because it’s going to be hard to get,” he urged his followers.

When I first read this yesterday, I didn’t have time to comment, and later I still wasn’t sure what to say, given the ultimately surreal nature of the report. This is Crazy Facebook Person territory, not something a fairly significant member of the federal government should be saying.

I think there are three possibilities:

  1. These are sincere views, meaning a conspiracy theorist type was given an important job (made very important by the pandemic).
  2. This is a cynical attempt to manipulate the public.
  3. We are witnessing a nervous breakdown unfold in public.

(These are not, of course, mutually exclusive).

On that last count, the story notes:

He went further, saying his physical health was in question, and his “mental health has definitely failed.”

“I don’t like being alone in Washington,” Mr. Caputo said, describing “shadows on the ceiling in my apartment, there alone, shadows are so long.” He also said the mounting number of Covid-19 deaths was taking a toll on him, telling his viewers, “You are not waking up every morning and talking about dead Americans.”

That he might just be a person predisposed to this kind of thinking (#1) is hard to know, save that the Trump administration has not been known for hiring well.

The piece notes:

A longtime Trump loyalist with no background in health care, Mr. Caputo, 58, was appointed by the White House to his post in April, at a time when the president’s aides suspected the health secretary, Alex M. Azar II, of protecting his public image instead of Mr. Trump’s. Mr. Caputo coordinates the messaging of an 80,000-employee department that is at the center of the pandemic response, overseeing the Food and Drug Administration, the C.D.C. and the National Institutes of Health.

[…]

A public relations specialist, Mr. Caputo has repeatedly claimed that his family and his business suffered hugely because of the investigation by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Mr. Caputo was a minor figure in that inquiry, but he was of interest partly because he had once lived in Russia, had worked for Russian politicians and was contacted in 2016 by a Russian who claimed to have damaging information about Hillary Clinton.

Mr. Caputo referred that person to Mr. Stone and was never charged with any wrongdoing. Mr. Caputo later wrote a book and produced a documentary, both entitled “The Ukraine Hoax,” to undermine the case for Mr. Trump’s impeachment.

Mr. Caputo worked on Mr. Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign for a time but was passed over for a job early in the administration. He remained friendly with Dan Scavino, the former campaign aide who is now the deputy chief of staff for White House communications and played a role in reconnecting Mr. Trump and Mr. Caputo.

As usual, we have someone appointed to a position because of loyalty and ties to Trump, not because of expertise. At a minimum, he clearly does not appear to see his job as getting the truth out, but rather protecting Trump’s political position (shades of #1 and #2):

This weekend, first Politico, then The New York Times and other news media organizations published accounts of how Mr. Caputo and a top aide had routinely worked to revise, delay or even scuttle the core health bulletins of the C.D.C. to paint the administration’s pandemic response in a more positive light. The C.D.C.’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports had previously been so thoroughly shielded from political interference that political appointees only saw them just before they were published.

Mr. Caputo’s 26-minute broadside on Facebook against scientists, the news media and Democrats was also another example of a senior administration official stoking public anxiety about the election and conspiracy theories about the “deep state” — the label Mr. Trump often attaches to the federal Civil Service bureaucracy.

One thing is for certain, Caputo is being extremely irresponsible:

C.D.C. 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,” Mr. Caputo said. “There are scientists who work for this government who do not want America to get well, not until after Joe Biden is president.”

[…]

Mr. Caputo predicted that the president would win re-election in November, but that his Democratic opponent, Joseph R. Biden Jr., would refuse to concede, leading to violence. “And when Donald Trump refuses to stand down at the inauguration, the shooting will begin,” he said. “The drills that you’ve seen are nothing.”

And whether or not Caputo is sincere, cynical, or having a nervous breakdown, the administration is clearly willing to cynically let his statements remain unrebuked:

There were no obvious signs from administration officials on Monday that Mr. Caputo’s job was in danger.

[…]

Mr. Caputo’s remarks also dovetailed in part with those of Roger J. Stone Jr., a longtime confidant of both Mr. Caputo and Mr. Trump. Mr. Stone, whose 40-month prison sentence for lying to Congress was commuted by the president in July, told the conspiracy website Infowars on Friday that Mr. Trump should consider declaring martial law if he lost re-election.

Of the many things I find disturbing about this (and there is so much that is disturbing here) is that it feeds the narrative that it is the Trump opposition that is not respecting the electoral process, rather than Trump himself. It fits into the overall narrative I noted a week or so ago (Electoral Integrity Concerns, Real and Imagined) and that I have seen multiple times since: the idea that it is the Democrats who aren’t respecting norms (or, worse, that they are planning a coup).

The bottom line remains that it has been Trump, going back to the 2016 campaign, who has repeatedly talked about “rigged” elections and who has never adhered to basic democratic norms about what to do about electoral results. It was Trump whose ego couldn’t take the fact that he lost the popular vote, so outright lied about millions of illegal votes. It is Trump who has sewn unending doubt about mail-by-mail.

And on and on and on.

It is exhausting.

And then to have a man who is supposed to be a spokesperson about public health policy in the middle of pandemic acting as a propagandist in a way that directly erodes public confidence in the electoral process is both beyond exhausting and shows the true rot of this administration.

All of this to go along with Trump refusing to make clear statements about what he would do if he lost and making “jokes” like this over the weekend:

This isn’t normal and is not acceptable.

Side note about that Nevada event: it was held indoors without social distancing in defiance of state orders. And while the people behind Trump had masks on for the camera, the rest of the crowd largely did not. This matters for a number of reasons, but a key one here is that it shows that Trump’s campaign knows it has to at least try to capitulate to the visuals for propaganda purposes but doesn’t really give a flip about the policy nor the people in the audience.

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FILED UNDER: Campaign 2020, US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. An Interested Party says:

    This isn’t normal and is not acceptable.

    Except it is normal and acceptable to a sizeable portion of the American population–that’s the real problem…

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  2. CSK says:

    I saw this yesterday and was stunned. This goes well beyond the kind of conspiratorial thinking promulgated by Trump fans. The man is ill, and needs to be removed from his post and treated.

    Trump, who will see or effect to see Caputo as merely a loyalist giving his boss his due, will need to be convinced to let Caputo go. Fast.

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  3. CSK says:

    @An Interested Party:
    The Trumpkins haven’t yet said word one about this. Even they may recognize mental illness when they see it, although their concern would be only for any harm done to Trump.

    ETA: Patty Murray has demanded Caputo’s resignation.

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  4. Scott F. says:

    This isn’t normal and is not acceptable.

    I realize you type this phrase so often that you’ve likely created a macro for it. But, the truth is this has become normal and this is not only acceptable, but approved of by >40% of the electorate.

    This sad fact is the problem we face as a country. Trump could smother under the weight of his malice tomorrow and we’d still be left with this new normal and a substantial number of citizenry emboldened to fight for their malignant views. How are we ever going to cleanse ourselves of this?

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  5. Jen says:

    Not normal, not acceptable, and yet “day ending in ‘y'” for this administration.

    He clearly needs help.

    But, so does the President, who, on FOX News this morning, stated that he wanted to assassinate Bashar al-Assad but was stopped by Mattis and that’s why he fired him.

    There is so much constant crazy going on in this administration it’s hard to focus on each instance.

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  6. CSK says:

    @Jen:
    Gee, back in 2018 Trump vehemently denied that offing Assad was ever under consideration. What a difference a day, or two years, makes.

    I think this is why Trump’s fans hector us to watch what he does and not listen to what he says. So much sh!t comes out of his mouth that even they can’t keep track of it.

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  7. Teve says:

    @Scott F.:

    This sad fact is the problem we face as a country. Trump could smother under the weight of his malice tomorrow and we’d still be left with this new normal and a substantial number of citizenry emboldened to fight for their malignant views. How are we ever going to cleanse ourselves of this?

    I’ve said before, I don’t have any particular expectation that America will survive conservative media. And there’s never before in history been a propaganda amplifier like Facebook.

    I saw on Twitter, just a few days ago, the following event:

    Person 1: Trump is so amazing! When 9/11 happened, he went down to Ground Zero, and paid hundreds of rescuers out of his own pocket!
    Person 2: That’s bullshit. Here’s a link to a Snopes article explaining that it’s bullshit.
    Person 3: well if Snopes said it’s wrong then that basically proves it’s right!

    You could easily Reichstag Fire these tards. Tom Cotton could easily be our last president.

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  8. Kathy says:

    “There are scientists who work for this government who do not want America to get well, not until after Joe Biden is president.”

    I’ve often thought American Exceptionalism should be renamed American Provincialism. For a global power, Americans seem to give the world scarcely a thought, unless it is to keep the rest of the world out of America.

    I say this because this pandemic affects all countries, and scientists in every one of them are working on means to stop it. COVID-19 doesn’t affect only America, and other countries are as capable of controlling it (hell, most are better at controlling it), treating it, or developing a vaccine that may stop it.

    Then there’s the sheer ignorance. To date, we are capable of producing a cure for this many viral diseases: ZERO.

    At best, antiviral drugs help keep the viral load in check so the immune system can clear it. Take AIDS. There’s no known means for clearing the HIV pathogen from a patient once they are infected. The various drugs developed to treat it work to the extent they keep it from causing major problems, and possibly from passing it on to other people, but they must be taken for life*. If you stop taking them, you develop full-blown AIDS and then die.

    I’m neither a physician nor a biologist, and I don’t work for a government department in charge of health, but I know these things. You’d expect the mentally ill gentleman referenced in this piece to know this, too.

    *AIDS drugs also have side effects that need to be managed, and may lose effectiveness over time, requiring changes in prescriptions.

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  9. Teve says:

    @Jen:

    But, so does the President, who, on FOX News this morning, stated that he wanted to assassinate Bashar al-Assad but was stopped by Mattis and that’s why he fired him.

    There is an impeachable event a week with these loons.

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  10. Not the IT Dept. says:

    When Nixon left office, Ford pardoned him because it was felt that it was better for the country that we move on. The same argument will be made again, albeit in quieter voices.

    *Bleep* that.

    I want charges, convictions and prison sentences, and if there were a few treason trials, that would be good too. Also Trump spending his last few months on this earth living in a cardboard box under a bridge, shunned by humanity.

    I want vengeance.

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  11. JohnMcC says:

    Steve Benen over at Rachel Maddow’s blog points out that the old gang of Stone, Charlie Black and Paul Manafort’s election firm back in the ’80s had as one of their first hires a certain Mr Michael Caputo.

    ‘Nuff said.

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  12. CSK says:

    On Twitter yesterday, Caputo suggested tear-gassing journalists.

    The account has since been deleted.

    Seriously, this has gone well beyond the crazy we expect from the Trump administration. This man needs help desperately. But first, he needs to be removed from his post.

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  13. Gustopher says:

    @Teve:

    I’ve said before, I don’t have any particular expectation that America will survive conservative media.

    I’m wondering how we managed to get out of the Randall Hearst Yellow Journalism phase, and into real news a century ago. All the stories from that time of newspapers basically causing the Spanish American war, and publishing straight up lies feel quaint and familiar at the same time.

    Alas, I know next to nothing about that era, including whether it was as bad as the few stories I remember. Anyone else?

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  14. mattbernius says:

    @Teve:

    You could easily Reichstag Fire these tards.

    My greatest concern, in this particular moment, is that doing so might not even require an actual fire.

    I’ve been revisiting the Moral Panic around Satanic Day Care in the eighties and the similiarities to today and Q are really striking (not to mention disturbing).

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  15. Kathy says:

    @Gustopher:

    Well, Hearst boasted about starting the war. There’s that famous report that he told Frederic Remington, then under his employment as illustrator, “you furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war.” But that was an exaggeration, if he ever did say it.

    The actual war wasn’t against Spain, but against the Philippines. That is, the war against Spain was over quickly, then it took years to defeat the Philippines .

    What is true, is that democratic governments require popular support for war. Hearst and his fellow Yellow Journalist moguls certainly helped to provide that by inflaming public opinion.

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  16. Scott F. says:

    @Teve: @Gustopher:
    The dissemination of lies, even under the guise of “news,” is nothing new. What I think is unprecedented in where we find ourselves today is Trump giving voice to alternative facts from the WH and the amplification and self-selection of disinformation made possible by social media.

    Trump is solvable. Vote him out, prosecute his corruption in a highly visible way, and then hope that Trump’s unique blend of epic narcissism, moral void, crass opportunism, and inexplicable charm is beyond the grasp of the likes of Tom Cotton or Lynn Cheney.

    Social media ain’t going anywhere. But, it can be made less profitable. Boycotting and shareholder shaming will need to be brought to bear.

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  17. Gustopher says:

    @Scott F.:

    Social media ain’t going anywhere. But, it can be made less profitable

    I’m in favor of opening the social media companies up for lawsuits where recommendations and curation are involved — where the company is making editorial decisions. If a socially awkward normie goes to Facebook or YouTube and then starts getting recommendations down the Incel spiral, and shoots a bunch of cheerleaders or something, let victims make a case that YouTube radicalized the shooter and that they bear a portion of the responsibility.

    And then, let that liability percolate through the ecosystem.

    Not making the sites responsible for the content the users create, or what people search out, just making them liable for the stuff the site presents to them. On OTB, as an example, there would be no liability on comments, but if the Editor’s Picks and Related Posts were leading people towards violence, that would be where the liability lies — even though the editorial decision is likely being made by an algorithm, but the owners are responsible for the algorithm (as they would be for their dog)

    It would have an effect on the propagation of extremist speech.

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  18. Scott says:

    @CSK: Once again, I am astounded by the personal weaknesses of the people Trump has surrounded himself with. Alex Azar was the President of Eli Lilly, a successful executive. Yet he doesn’t have the gumption, pride, guts, etc. to immediately terminate Caputo. I don’t get it.

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  19. Mister Bluster says:

    test

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  20. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Scott:

    I am astounded by the personal weaknesses

    This last four years has been a real lesson in cowardice and corruption. I always thought of myself as pretty skeptical of people, but 2016 was an eye-opener and now I’m Alex DeLarge with my eyeballs forced open. Americans are dumber, nastier and weaker than I imagined.

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  21. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Scott: Maybe he doesn’t disagree with Caputo. (And even if he is saying that he does, how do we know it isn’t just PR/CYA? Distrust the government isn’t just for RWNJ and progs any more. 🙁 )

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  22. SC_Birdflyte says:

    I first heard this one back in 72 or 73, when everyone had recently seen The Godfather.

    Trump: “Don Corleone, I have a favor to ask.”
    Don Corleone: “What is it? Do you seek justice?”
    Trump: “Not necessarily.”

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  23. JohnMcC says:

    @Gustopher: Psst! That’s “William Randolph Hearst” by the way. And the ‘yellow press’ was based on the tech at the time of telegraphy and rapid printing. Very interesting story. And they started the ‘Spanish American War’ by publicizing/sensationalizing the Spanish for doing in Cuba pretty much what we’re doing at the Mexican border — operating ‘concentration camps’. Then there was the (accidental) sinking of the USS Maine in Havana and the horse got out of the barn.

    It was a war that turned Tampa from a sleepy little village where cigars came from to… whatever it is now. Another interesting story.

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  24. Lounsbury says:

    @Not the IT Dept.: The long history of political vengeance post change of power says that this is a rather adolescent response. Like many things Teenagers want, while short-term satisfying, long-term turns out to be a bad idea. Emotional gratification, political sugar rush for later rot.

    Of course non-Federal pursuit of standard crime is a good idea, but it is rather more pressing to solve the institutional weaknesses that Trump has put in gross relief.

    Move on you should not but the principal need and focus is the hard structural changes needed to prevent repeat, not the sugar rush of attacking Trump. Leave that to NY attorneys general.

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  25. Not the IT Dept. says:

    @Lounsbury:

    I think charges, trials, convictions and harsh sentences will do a lot to address those “institutional weaknesses”. If politicians know that there will be real consequences for their actions, it will be amazing how they’ll smarten up.

    I’ll overlook the patronizing tone of your post.

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  26. CSK says:

    Breaking:

    According to Politico, Caputo is “mulling” quitting for health reasons. He has apologized to the HHS staff and is meeting with Azar later today.

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  27. MarkedMan says:

    @Scott F.:

    What I think is unprecedented in where we find ourselves today is Trump giving voice to alternative facts from the WH

    Oh I don’t know about it being unprecedented. While Reagan didn’t reach Trump’s numbers, he certainly had no problem with presenting alternative facts from the White House. There was a popular series of books during his era called “Ronald Reagan’s Reign of Error” that ticked off hundreds of his lies, many of which he repeated long after they had been completely debunked. He knew his fans weren’t interested in the truth, but rather in things that sounded true. I suspect it was with Reagan in mind that Colbert coined the term “Truthiness”.

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  28. CSK says:

    @Scott:
    Trump brings out the worst in everyone.

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  29. Liberal Capitalist says:

    Hat tip to Wonkette again, in light of Steven’s article:

    https://www.wonkette.com/a-significant-portion-of-the-american-public-has-gone-absolutely-bugf-ck

    This is the result of the GOP haing gone full Trump. To make themselves comfortable with their tribe, the grasp of reality has been irrevocably released.

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  30. mattbernius says:

    @CSK:

    According to Politico, Caputo is “mulling” quitting for health reasons. He has apologized to the HHS staff and is meeting with Azar later today.

    A sad aspect of that is the reporting reminds us of how stigmatized mental emergencies are. He specifically denies any mental or emotional health problems and suggests that he has a physical issue. However, everything in Sunday’s postings suggests someone having acute mental or emotional health problems.

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  31. CSK says:

    @mattbernius:
    Well, he did say during his rant that his “mental health had definitely failed,” so I give him some credit for recognizing the issue.

    I agree with your larger point, though. There are some bosses who’d be sympathetic if an employee approached them with a problem like this. Donald Trump would probably deride you as a weakling–and boast about being a very stable genius.

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  32. Gustopher says:

    @Not the IT Dept.:

    I’ll overlook the patronizing tone of your post.

    How? Teach me, as I would like to be a better man.

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  33. Kurtz says:

    @Lounsbury:

    The long history of political vengeance post change of power says that this is a rather adolescent response

    It is convenient that you ignore the lengthy history of political figures escaping application of the law by virtue of their position.

    I’m quite sure every regular commenter here would enthusiastically agree with your desire to fix institutional weaknesses. But it doesn’t take a cynic to see that as insurmountable in a world where more than half of Republicans think QAnon is at least partially true. Not to mention the structural obstacles in the way of institutional change.

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  34. JohnMcC says:

    @CSK: “According to Politico, Caputo is ‘mulling’ quitting for health reasons.”

    The absolute best paragraph in that Politico story: Caputo also disputed anonymous White House criticism of his mental health — saying that some of his comments have been taken out of context — and concluded the meeting by encouraging his staff to listen to music by the Grateful Dead.

    Can’t make this shit up.

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  35. CSK says:

    @JohnMcC:
    Is he denying that he himself said that his “mental health is failing”?

    How does one take that out of context?

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  36. An Interested Party says:

    Speaking of disturbing

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  37. Barry says:

    @Scott: “Alex Azar was the President of Eli Lilly, a successful executive. Yet he doesn’t have the gumption, pride, guts, etc. to immediately terminate Caputo. I don’t get it.”

    Trump loves the guy.

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  38. Thomm says:

    @Liberal Capitalist: it’s ok. It is just partisanhip..it isn’t that a sizable chunk of our population have bad morals and ethics. It is as if we elected a right wing media fever swamp host. I lay the slow destruction of the gop on rush limbaugh mainly and all of his copycats over the years. But he deserved his medal of freedom for making our hosts laugh in college.

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  39. de stijl says:

    That man is experiencing obvious paranoia.

    Paranoia is a condition some of us battle with. I can sympathize, but such a person needs to be removed from any position of power or authority.

    Caputo was an extraordinarily poor fit at CDC.

    The blame is on who appointed him.

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  40. Lounsbury says:

    @Not the IT Dept.: Yes so the political partisans always think. What actually happens is paths to tit-for-tat political vengeance on election cycle are developed.

    And it does not work.

    But hey, you’re America, you’re “unique” why should you pay attention to the lessons of political history. Other countries are like Alien Planets with no lessons for you. Because America!

    @Kurtz:
    I ignore nothing mate, rather I am paying attention to the broad lessons of political history on a global level.

    But of course you’re America so you’re Special.

    In the meantime the very hardness of the robust institutional changes needed are precisely the point. There is only so much political capital and political time – as in real human being time – one has in say the first two years after your election. One can spend it wisely or one can spend it on the political sugar rush for your later fat and slovely habits and decline.

    Being America I guess one should bet on short-termist, slovenly adolescent urge driven response. But one can hope otherwise.

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  41. Mike Schilling says:

    The C.D.C.’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports had previously been so thoroughly shielded from political interference that political appointees only saw them just before they were published.

    And this no longer being the case is a huge norm violation in itself, even without Caputo being a lunatic. Everything is political now.

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