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HHS spokesman Michael Caputo

Screenshot from July 15, 2017 CBS Evening News / YouTube

Reprinted with permission from Alternet

A top spokesman for the Trump administration's Department of Health and Human Services broadcast a disturbing and conspiratorial video on Facebook this Sunday, undermining his official role as a government communicator and stoking fears of imminent violence.

Michael Caputo was a longtime Trump loyalist who was brought into the administration in April in a clear attempt to wrest control over messaging about the coronavirus. President Donald Trump has consistently twisted the truth to fit his own preferred narrative and contradicted the experts who work for the federal government. Multiple reports last week revealed that Caputo had been at work doing exactly what critics had assumed: corrupting the scientific agencies meant to communicate clearly about public health, pressuring them to change messaging to fit the president's rhetoric.


In the Facebook video, as reported by the New York Times and Axios, Caputo described the negative reaction he had received due to the reports. He spun a conspiratorial tale in which opponents of the president are concocting a violent plan to overthrow him and take down his supporters, while insiders within the federal government are undermining Trump's agenda.

"You understand that they're going to have to kill me, and unfortunately, I think that's where this is going," Caputo said. He said he has been continually threatened since joining the administration, and the recent reports about his pressure on the CDC put his physical health under siege and caused his mental health to fail.

He complained about being alone in Washington, D.C., saying that he sees "shadows on the ceiling in my apartment, there alone, shadows are so long."

Even though he predicted that Trump will win re-election, he said that former Vice President Joe Biden won't concede — triggering a violent conflict.

"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. If you carry guns, buy ammunition, ladies and gentlemen, because it's going to be hard to get."

He called the killing of a right-wing protester in Portland a "drill," again suggesting a Democratic-aligned conspiracy of violence. The shooter in that case, an activist named Michael Forest Reinoehl, refused to be taken alive by U.S. Marshals because "he couldn't say what he had inside him," Caputo said. There's no evidence for this outrageous claim.

Of the administration scientists working to fight the virus, 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."

Despite all this dangerous and inflammatory rhetoric, the administration defended Caputo in a statement:

Mr. Caputo is a critical, integral part of the president's coronavirus response, leading on public messaging as Americans need public health information to defeat the Covid-19 pandemic.

Caputo's comments about his own mental health suggest that he may be experiencing some symptoms of mental illness that inspired these dark comments. If this is the case, he should surely be given leave from his position until he is able to seek the appropriate treatment and recover.

But Caputo's comments also clearly fall into a recurring pattern of conpsiratorial, delusional and violent thinking on the right that is not merely a sign of individual pathology. Trump himself often speaks precisely in the way Caputo spoke in this video, and these exact ideas are rampant across right-wing media.

What's most disturbing about it is that it is ratcheting up tensions in the United States that feeds into a vicious cycle, one that really could lead to violence — even if no one is planning a genuine conspiracy. Critics of the president, including me, have warned that he is trying to corrupt the election and undermine the integrity of the vote count in order to retain power, a practice that is in line with the GOP's disdain for democracy. I think the evidence for these claims is overwhelming.

But pointing out these facts and evidence has led to a backlash on the right, inspiring some to now argue that the true danger to the integrity of the election result comes from the left, rather than the president or the conservative movement. This only increases the right-wing's desire to win the election at any cost, and thus increases the urgency of the president's opponents to warn about the dangers. This is a deeply unhealthy cycle for the country to fall into, but at this point, it's difficult to see how we can escape it.

Photo by expertinfantry/ CC BY 2.0

At this moment, the president of the United States is threatening to "throw out" the votes of millions of Americans to hijack an election that he seems more than likely to lose. Donald Trump is openly demanding that state authorities invalidate lawful absentee ballots, no different from the primary ballot he mailed to his new home state of Florida, for the sole purpose of cheating. And his undemocratic scheme appears to enjoy at least nominal support from the Supreme Court, which may be called upon to adjudicate the matter.

But what is even worse than Trump's coup plot — and the apparent assent of unprincipled jurists such as Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh — is the Democratic Party's feeble response to this historic outrage. It is the kind of issue that Republicans, with their well-earned reputation for political hardball, would know how to exploit fully and furiously.

They know because they won the same game in Florida 20 years ago.

During that ultimate legal showdown between George W. Bush and Al Gore, when every single vote mattered, a Democratic lawyer argued in a memorandum to the Gore team that the validity of absentee ballots arriving after Election Day should be challenged. He had the law on his side in that particular instance — but not the politics.

As soon as the Republicans got hold of that memo, they realized that it was explosive. Why? Many of the late ballots the Democrats aimed to invalidate in Florida had been sent by military voters, and the idea of discarding the votes of service personnel was repellent to all Americans. Former Secretary of State James Baker, who was overseeing the Florida recount for Bush, swiftly denounced the Democratic plot against the soldiers, saying: "Here we have ... these brave young men and women serving us overseas. And the postmark on their ballot is one day late. And you're going to deny him the right to vote?"

Never mind the grammar; Baker's message was powerful — and was followed by equally indignant messages in the following days from a parade of prominent Bush backers including retired Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, the immensely popular commander of U.S. troops in the Desert Storm invasion that drove Saddam Hussein's army out of Kuwait. Fortuitously, Schwarzkopf happened to be on the scene as a resident of Florida.

As Jeffrey Toobin recounted in Too Close to Call, his superb book on the Florida 2000 fiasco, the Democrats had no choice but to retreat. "I would give the benefit of the doubt to ballots coming in from military personnel," conceded then-Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Gore's running mate, during a defensive appearance on Meet the Press. But Toobin says Gore soon realized that to reject military ballots would render him unable to serve as commander in chief — and that it would be morally wrong.

Fast-forward to 2020, when many of the same figures on the Republican side are now poised to argue that absentee ballots, which will include many thousands of military votes — should not be counted after Election Day, even if they arrived on time. Among those Republicans is Justice Kavanaugh, who made the opposite argument as a young lawyer working for Bush in Florida 20 years ago. Nobody expects legal consistency or democratic morality from a hack like him, but someone should force him and his Republican colleagues to own this moment of shame.

Who can do that? Joe Biden's campaign and the Democratic Party ought to be exposing the Republican assault on military ballots — and, by the same token, every legally valid absentee ballot — every day. But the Democrats notoriously lack the killer instinct of their partisan rivals, even at a moment of existential crisis like this one.

No, this is clearly a job for the ex-Republicans of the Lincoln Project, who certainly recall what happened in Florida in 2000. They have the attitude and aptitude of political assassins. They surely know how to raise hell over an issue like military votes — and now is the time to exercise those aggressive skills in defense of democracy.

To find out more about Joe Conason and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.