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Trump ally Michael Caputo named as new HHS spokesperson

Health and Human Services Department Secretary Alex Azar confirmed Wednesday that former 2016 Trump campaign adviser Michael Caputo will serve as the department's new spokesperson. By Betsy Klein, Kristen Holmes, Caroline Kelly and Marshall Cohen, CNN

(CNN) -- Health and Human Services Department Secretary Alex Azar confirmed Wednesday that former 2016 Trump campaign adviser Michael Caputo will serve as the department's new spokesperson, putting a vocal defender of President Donald Trump in a key messaging role.

"I'm delighted to have Michael Caputo join our team at @HHSGov as our Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs, especially at this critical time in our nation's public health history," Azar tweeted.

Caputo was sworn in to the role on Tuesday and Wednesday was his first day, a source familiar with the situation told CNN, who also said to expect to see an uncomfortable power dynamic between Azar and Caputo.

"I am honored to serve the President to the best of my abilities in this time of crisis and, in so doing, the American people," Caputo said in a statement.

The White House declined to comment on the personnel change. Politico first reported the news of Caputo's hire.

Caputo's hire ensures a firm ally to the President is in charge of messaging for a department playing a critical role in the response to the ongoing coronavirus outbreak. Trump has come under fire for his administration's delayed response to the pandemic and the lack of widely available testing.

The President has also previously expressed frustration with Azar, whom Trump blamed for not keeping him updated with the progression of the coronavirus outbreak when he was leading the federal government's response. According to the source, Caputo was brought in because of the President's current distrust of Azar and as part of his quest to flood the agencies with loyalists.

Caputo appears to have cleansed his Twitter account as he takes his new HHS job. His old tweets are gone, and he changed his profile picture -- which now features a professional headshot instead of the cover of his recent book, "The Ukraine Hoax," which included debunked conspiracies about presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and his son.

Trump and Caputo have been acquaintances since before the President entered politics.

Caputo first met Trump in 2013 while Trump was considering running for governor of New York. Caputo later joined Trump's presidential campaign in 2015 as a communications staffer, but resigned in June 2016 after publicly mocking former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski after Lewandowski's tumultuous exit.

After Trump became president, Caputo's past business ties to Russia quickly thrust him into the spotlight of the special counsel investigation. He testified before Congress and gave an interview to special counsel Robert Mueller's team.

He adamantly denied that there was ever collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin and became an aggressive anti-Mueller personality on Twitter, sometimes spreading false conspiracy theories and debunked claims about the probe.

The Mueller report flagged 77 instances when Trump or his associates might have lied to investigators, including one instance involving Caputo, according to a CNN analysis.

The Mueller report noted that investigators received conflicting information about a May 2016 meeting that Caputo helped arrange between longtime Trump ally Roger Stone and a Florida-based Russian named Henry Greenberg, who offered dirt on Hillary Clinton. Mueller's team spoke to Caputo and Greenberg about the incident, but Mueller's final report did not indicate who was telling the truth. Neither of them was charged with lying to the FBI or any other crimes.

Caputo's testimony did not go unnoticed by Trump. In July 2017, days after Caputo testified privately to the House Intelligence Committee, Trump thanked Caputo on Twitter "for saying so powerfully that there was no Russian collusion in our winning campaign."

Nearly two years later, in April 2019, Trump summoned Caputo to the White House and, with the first lady, met with Caputo and his family in the Oval Office -- a warm reception that appeared a distant cry from Trump's fury at other former aides who participated in the probe.

Caputo has defended Trump's approach to perceived attacks. When asked by CNN's Dana Bash last year whether Trump should have gone after the Mueller team as aggressively as he did, Caputo backed the President.

"I think the President has been aggressive because people have been aggressive with him," Caputo said, adding that "if he feels like he's been punched, he punches back twice as hard."

The former Trump campaign aide is also longtime friend of Stone -- who was convicted on seven charges last year including lying to Congress and witness tampering -- and has led an effort to have the former Trump associate pardoned.

The-CNN-Wire™ & © 2018 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.

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