McALLEN, Texas — The purpose of the work was on the sign above the door: “Restoring Human Dignity.”
Inside the Humanitarian Respite Center, run by Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley and a well-known nun who has the ear of the pope, Sister Norma Pimentel spoke into a microphone to the hundreds of migrants who just had been processed and released by the United States Border Patrol, then tested for Covid, then brought here. “Bienvenidos,” she said with a smile. “Welcome.” To her right, stacked tall against a wall, were boxes and boxes of stuffed animals, donated new. Small, tired children gathered around, and among the volunteers who started to distribute the plush, reassuring toys was an unexpected face.
Wearing khaki pants, a navy polo shirt and a tied-tight mask the color of a kidney bean, Michael Caputo, the longtime acolyte of Republican mischief-maker Roger Stone and ardent former aide and attack-dog defender of Donald Trump, put the squeezable baubles, one after the other, into the procession of outstretched hands of kids not that much younger than the youngest of his own, meeting their eyes and nodding his head. Yes. Here. For you.
Caputo’s cell phone sounded, his ringtone “Ripple” by the Grateful Dead, a song about dark and dawn, falling down and getting up and uncertain roads ahead.
“You can’t believe this facility,” Caputo said. On the other end of the call was the CEO of the Beverly Hills Teddy Bear Company, who was en route to McAllen. “It is packed to the rafters,” he told him.
“Hurry,” Caputo said before hanging up. “You’ve got to get here.”
I was the only reporter on hand to witness this scene earlier this summer less than 10 miles north of the Mexican border. For most people, the last time they saw or thought about Caputo was nearly a year ago — when he was the top spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services and in the span of a catastrophic week and a half in the middle of September uncorked an unhinged, 26-minute Facebook Live in which he spouted conspiracy theories and said anti-Trump “hit squads” were “going to have to kill me” and then was diagnosed amid the subsequent firestorm with a spreading and actually potentially deadly head and neck cancer. Three days later, he announced he was taking medical leave — capping a five-month tenure that had been dogged by controversy during some of the earliest, scariest portions of the pandemic. It seemed at the time like an odd, sad coda for Caputo — the chatty, combative operative and flack who first met Trump in 1988, a person of interest in the investigations into the alleged Russian collusion of the ex-president’s 2016 campaign, a self-styled “Forrest Gump of global politics.” In the fall of 2020, Caputo all but disappeared, going home to the Buffalo suburb of East Aurora, New York, essentially to try not to die. But then … he lived.
And in the almost six months since he was deemed cancer-free, a span of time in which I’ve spent dozens of hours talking with him in New York, in Texas and over the phone, Caputo in his convalescence has been grappling with what to do with what he sees as a second chance.
In speeches to GOP grassroots groups, he has advocated for Covid vaccines, putting him in opposition with many fellow Trump supporters, friends and allies, up to and including Stone — a man he considers as close as a brother. He’s struggled with what to make of the malevolent events of January 6. He’s worked to decipher a transformative dream he had on what might have been his deathbed. He’s drawn closer than he’s ever been to his Catholic faith even as he vacillates between professions of Zen-like serenity and residual and palpable bile — “hate” he still feels, as he once put it, for the “nattering media,” “the preening investigators,” “the innumerable liars and attackers.” Last week, in addition to a return to jobs in the public relations and insurance industries, he started course work toward a master’s degree in theology. Caputo has moved not just politically and spiritually but physically, too, to Florida — the precise place I agreed to not reveal — having concluded that he has no choice but to attempt to flee a level of partisan harassment that is part of a toxic political environment in which he once reveled and that he admits he helped create.
A bit more than six months shy of 60 years old, Caputo is not who he used to be — and it’s not just because he’s significantly thinner and remains physically weakened from punishing rounds of radiation. He’s not who he used to be, and can’t be, he has told me repeatedly, because he’s convinced that doing what he was doing — trafficking in the social media acidity and angry, slash-and-burn politics that have come to define this disquieting and unsettled American moment — is what almost killed him, not metaphorically but literally, as specific and causal as cigarettes and lung disease.
“I think I finally understand after … everything,” he told me at the respite center. “There’s much more to life.”
For a nation that continues to be wracked by tribal furies, an epiphany from someone like Michael Caputo, at least at first blush, proffers some promise that we perhaps are not doomed to perpetual political strife, that we can come to the brink — and then step back. It turns out, though, his is not a tidy, road-to-Damascus type of transformation, and it’s not a redemption story, either. Caputo insists it is not — that he doesn’t need to be redeemed — because he’s done nothing for which he must atone.
And yet here he was, in this hot, poor city that Republican leaders of late have pegged as a kind of ground zero of the border crisis and the latest Covid surge, both of which they’re angling, obviously, to pin on President Joe Biden. And here he was at the very facility InfoWars conspiracist Alex Jones targeted this spring to concoct a video in which he histrionically accused volunteers of “smuggling children.” And here Caputo was, scrambling a lifetime of alignments and persuasions, not only not arguing for any of these things but assiduously steering clear of any trace of political wrangling at all. Caputo wasn’t on cable TV hawking point-scoring soundbites. He wasn’t outside staging rage-bait havoc. He was inside, handing out stuffed animals to migrant children, and now going to get more.
Caputo walked through what Sister Norma Pimentel likes to call the “holy chaos,” past the counter at which a line of asylum seekers registered and got help connecting with bus and flight reservations made by family members already living in the U.S. He walked through a back room with blue mats on which babies and toddlers rested with weary parents, through a cramped kitchen with shelves of canned corn and packets of Top Ramen and clear sacks of dry pintos, up a set of stairs to a storage area filled with sorted-through clothing and scooters and strollers and playsets. He approached the pallets of Beverly Hills Teddy Bear boxes, 24 toys in each, and grabbed one and balanced it on his left hip, then a second, then a third, then a fourth, and he made his way back down the stairs and back through the kitchen and back past the mats and back to all the kids and their eyes and their outstretched hands.
I could tell the load had strained him. His right hand shook. He held it until it stopped.
He opened another box.
“How are you doing?” That’s the text I sent Caputo on March 2. I had no story I was working on — just wanted to know how he was.
“Ok,” he responded. “Recovering.”
“Great to hear.”
“Cancer is a wild ride.”
“Clean bill of health now?”
“Yes,” he texted, “but I’m wiped out. Long road to normal. Radiation and chemo left me gutted.”
I had talked to Caputo before, of course, mostly about Trump but not only about Trump. He’s been around, and he’s seen some things — a real talker and teller of tales, which I (usually) enjoy. There are some people I talk to enough times for enough stories for enough years that I begin to feel a certain kind of closeness, just like any other relationship, I suppose. But Caputo? Not really. Wasn’t like that. Here, though, his texts to me were surprisingly unvarnished — intimate almost. He sent me pictures of his radiation-scorched neck. And he sent me a video he made with his phone of his 35th and final radiation treatment. It was 11 minutes long.
Caputo was wearing black cap-toe Oxford shoes and black suit pants and a starched white French-cuffed shirt and a loosened silver tie. He took off his wire-rimmed glasses and his N95 mask. On the middle finger of his right hand was a ring in the shape of a skull. In his left, he held rosary beads. Playing in the room was his choice of music, Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here,” as the hulking radiotherapy machine wound its robotic way around him, sending into his cancer invisible, healing beams, moving almost as if it were taking stock of this person here flat on his back so perfectly still but for a trembling left hand. And at the end of this final treatment, with the music still swirling in this antiseptic space, Caputo stood up. He tightened and straightened his tie. He buttoned a black vest and the matching coat of a three-piece suit. He put his beads in his pocket before finishing the ensemble with a homburg hat. “OK,” he said, and then ended the recording.
“Not sure what’s next,” Caputo said in another text.
“The Russia investigations stress was otherworldly,” he went on. “The Covid response stress made the Russia investigations look like a vacation.”
“And the cancer,” I asked, “was caused by stress?”
“Stress induced,” he said.
“It was there, dormant,” he added, “but the stress was the match that lit it up.”
“I remember talking with you about ’88 and the RNC in New Orleans,” I texted, referring to the GOP convention there that year. “Long time ago. From a wild ride to a ‘wild ride,’ as you say.”
“Truly,” he responded. “If you told me then that stress of my work would increase to a level that kicked cancer into gear in 30 years, I would have got out, stayed there and waited tables.”
I thought about what he seemed to be suggesting.
“If you had to do it all over again,” I asked, meaning mainly his life in and around politics, meaning starting in the ’80s after he got out of the Army and graduated from the University at Buffalo as an aide to Jack Kemp, meaning his stint as a so-called “Stone boy” in the infamous but ultra-influential Washington lobbying firm of Black, Manafort, Stone and Kelly, meaning his escapades-packed tours in the ’90s and the aughts as an operative, lobbyist and PR pusher from D.C. to South Florida to the former Soviet Union, meaning his work over the course of the past dozen or so years for tea party interests and for a Trump precursor of a candidate in New York and then off and on with and for Trump himself starting in 2013 and going all the way up to his role at HHS …
“… would you?”
Caputo answered immediately.
“No,” he said.
“I was headed,” he said, “for cancer the whole time.”
“A smashmouth politician,” Caputo told me earlier this month. “For 30 years, I was the guy you hired when you were at war.” It’s almost eye-rollingly overblown, but it’s how he saw himself.
He met Stone through Kemp. At BMSK, he was a driver for Stone, the firm’s most roguish face. He liked it. “Embraced it,” he admitted. Caputo saw the things Stone did to stoke that reputation — “things that aren’t illegal,” Caputo once said, “but you need to go to confession for.” In ’88 in New Orleans, Caputo told me, he helped set up a room for a meet-and-greet for a Stone client — “and lo and behold, the guy who walked in was Donald Trump.”
In the ’90s, after serving as a press aide on George H.W. Bush’s unsuccessful re-election effort, Caputo moved to Russia to work as a U.S.-funded elections adviser. By ’96, he was a youth-vote adviser to Boris Yeltsin — leading in part, he says, to the odd but memorable scene of the white-haired president of Russia doing a jig on a stage at a rock concert. Caputo opened his own PR and lobby shop and ever since has talked up the danger of the place and the time, once describing post-fall-of-the-Wall Russia as “like Paris in the 1920s but with Kalashnikovs.”
In 2004, back stateside, he penned a righteous column about murderous Russian oligarchs. “Raised in a communist world devoid of morals, they have no soul,” he wrote in the Post. Fearing retribution, he lived for years off Miami Beach on a tugboat called Maribel with an African gray parrot named August West. He worked on local elections and referenda. He once sent a man dressed as a chicken to the office of an opponent who didn’t want to debate. The Miami Herald dubbed him a “political stunt-meister.” In ’07, he went to Ukraine to be the general consultant for a parliamentary campaign; his candidate won in an upset, but the campaign manager was shot dead. Two years later, Caputo married his translator, and she demanded he get out of politics. He agreed. Kind of. “I’m determined to find some peace in my life,” he said on his blog. “I’ll run just one more campaign.”
The campaign was Carl Paladino’s gubernatorial “crusade” in New York in 2010, and Caputo was the manager — of a campaign that can be seen in retrospect as a proto-Trump template. Peace? Paladino was an insider who ran as an outsider — a rich, blunt, unapologetic, “unembarrassable” businessman from Buffalo, hell-bent on appealing to disaffected voters in the aftermath of the election of Barack Obama. “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!” Paladino shouted at a Caputo-orchestrated kickoff replete with the playing of the raving speech from the movie Network. Paladino said he wanted to “take a baseball bat to Albany.” He railed about a “parasitical ruling class.” He said he wanted corrupt politicians sent to prison. “The Provocateur Loading Paladino’s Slingshot,” the New York Times called Caputo in a headline. He loved it. “I was proud of that, of being that guy,” Caputo told me. The campaign, he told POLITICO that fall, would be “a bloodbath.” It was — Paladino was trounced by nearly 30 points by Andrew Cuomo.
For Caputo, though, the experience built a bridge back to Trump. In late 2013 and into ’14, he was part of a group of GOP activists and elected officials who tried to get Trump to run for governor. Trump decided against it, of course, opting to lie in wait for what he called “the big thing.” Caputo’s importance in this effort was and is a matter of debate. “He’s a wannabe,” former Trump attorney and fixer Michael Cohen told me recently. Wrong, countered Sam Nunberg, one of Trump’s top (and few) political advisers at the time. “He’s not a hanger-on at all,” he said. “I think Caputo is a very talented, smart guy.” Regardless of who did or didn’t like him, this, Caputo said, is when he “started drinking from the Trump firehose.” He was an ad hoc spokesman during Trump’s dalliance with buying the Buffalo Bills. He periodically surfaced as a zealous apostle; in the wake, for instance, of McKay Coppins’ dismissive BuzzFeed profile in 2014 — “36 Hours On the Fake Campaign Trail with Donald Trump” — Caputo blasted emails to press secretaries mocking Coppins as a “partisan flibbertigibbet.” And he worked on Trump’s very real presidential campaign from the fall of ’15 to the following June—when he resigned due to a tweet in which he celebrated the firing of campaign manager Corey Lewandowski.
In the first few years of Trump’s presidency, as he was being interviewed by investigators from congressional intelligence committees and the sprawling operation of special counsel Robert Mueller, Caputo was a ready, reliable, sometimes contentious pro-Trump voice on CNN and MSNBC. He called “this theory of Russian collusion” a “fantasy,” and he harangued anti-Trump Republicans. “The president’s agenda is the Republican agenda,” he told New York’s Olivia Nuzzi. “If they don’t agree, shut the fuck up.” Trump noticed. So, too, did Trump’s antagonists — especially once Mueller’s findings did not lead to charges against Trump. The week of the release of his findings, according to Buffalo-area police reports and court records, the executive director of a local culinary institute sent Caputo a message on Facebook calling him a “trump clown” and a “racist ass” while making vague threats. “How do you sleep? … you shouldn’t. Look around you. … just know Home will be waiting for you. You’ll dread the day you name this ‘where I’m from’ …” A retired high school teacher from a suburb of Chicago sent a similarly menacing message: “Fuck You Asshole! I would love to meet you face to face you gutless pussy. I would beat your arrogant ass into next year.” Largely toothless internet gutter talk or credible threats of violence? Caputo had fisheye security cameras installed on the front of his house.
“Where’s Michael?” Trump bellowed in the White House. It was April 24, 2019, and Caputo and his family had been invited by the president for a visit. “Biden’s a joke,” Trump told Caputo during their post-Mueller Oval Office get-together. “The other candidates will eat him alive. I’d love to run against him, but it’ll never happen.”
Then came 2020.
In March, as Covid-19 began to make a muck of life around the world as well as Trump’s political prospects, Caputo clamored for a more meaningful role. “I want to get in this fight, man,” he told me when we talked that month. “I want to get in — the fight against the virus — I am dying to get in,” he said. “I’m not going to be able to look at myself in the mirror if I’m not out there swinging.”
In April, he got the call, from Trump himself, to go to Washington. Even some of his friends were surprised. “Stunned,” Gordon Hensley told me recently. “This job requires an even-keeled temperament and ideally a health policy background, and Caputo had neither,” said Hensley, a longtime pal and Republican health policy consultant who ultimately was hired by Caputo to be an adviser at HHS. “His style was voluble and volatile,” Hensley said, “and he had a penchant for public brawling, with media and Trump opponents.”
CNN summarily offered up a reminder, reporting on a litany of his racist, profane, conspiratorial, intemperate tweets. “Coronavirus is the Democrats’ new Russia,” he had tweeted earlier in the month. “This Democrat strategy, echoed by their conjugal media, will fail. Hoping your country fails and hundreds of thousands die so you can gain power is a sick and twisted strategy. America will punish them.”
On April 15, he started at HHS as the assistant secretary for public affairs.
In May, his wife back in East Aurora called the police to say a man in a maroon Honda CR-V had driven by their house shouting, “Fuck Donald Trump! Fuck Mike Caputo!” — the same man, according to Caputo, who had hollered obscenities at his daughter the week before in their driveway.
In early June, in response to false online rumors about coming antifa attacks in “white neighborhoods,” Caputo called the police to say “he has people who monitor social media” and “has been advised that antifa will be targeting small towns tonight,” according to a police report. He was “concerned,” he said, “that they will target East Aurora and his residence.”
Before long, Caputo became a lightning rod in Washington, scrapping with reporters, saying on a taxpayer-funded podcast that people in the Trump administration had “a target” on their backs — and working with department aides to influence public communications about health data and guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to POLITICO reporting, in an effort to bolster Trump’s footing in a knotty election year.
And by the middle of September, the day after a doctor had seen an ultrasound and called to say it “looks like cancer,” Caputo hit record on the Facebook Live. Unshaven and in a gray T-shirt, he presented unevenly as somber, resentful, unrepentant, unwell. He accused “scientists who work for this government” of “sedition,” casting them as a “resistance unit” and saying they were “going to hell” and had “rotted” brains. “I’m not going anywhere,” he said. “You know why? Because the president of the United States supports me.” He speculated that Biden would not concede. “And when Donald Trump refuses to stand down at the inauguration, the shooting will begin,” he said. He urged gun owners to go buy ammunition. “This is war,” he said. He shook his head. “My health is failing. My mental health is definitely failing.” He looked as if he might cry. “I don’t like being alone in Washington,” he said. “The shadows on the ceiling in my apartment — there alone — those shadows are so long.”
Caputo and I have talked a lot about the Facebook Live. He has. I’ve never asked about it. He brought it up in May. He brought it up in June. He brought it up in July. And earlier this month, talking about last fall’s diatribe, he embarked on an utter roller-coaster ride of another.
“It was raw, man. I get that. It was a bad look. An assistant secretary for public affairs should never have been doing anything of the sort. I shouldn’t have done it. I apologized to my team at HHS for making their lives more difficult when they were trying to keep people from getting sick. And that’s all they were trying to do. I apologized to my team. I apologized to all 400 of them. But if somebody called me and said, ‘Oh, you apologized for being such an asshole,’ I didn’t — I didn’t apologize for being myself. Everything I said in that video, I meant. I had no business saying it as ASPA, none, but I was — I just found out I was dying. I was up all night. I was coming out there to talk about my cancer. And as I turned on my phone, a guy screamed out that I should die immediately, without knowing I had cancer. And I, I — I reacted. And you know what that makes me? A fucking human being!” he said.
“If Joe Rando doesn’t understand that? If some reporter who wants to hang my balls doesn’t understand that? So what! It just doesn’t matter to me after 35 years of walking the tightrope, man — it just doesn’t matter. You know, the first 50 pages of my Google results are a slaughterhouse — so fucking kill me!” he said.
“I am,” he said, “who the fuck I am.”
“Look what they’ve done to you, Michael,” Caputo told me Trump told him last fall. “Look what they’ve done to you.” It was Thanksgiving. He was in a room in a hospital in Buffalo, just him, no visitors, pandemic restrictions, more than 30 radiation hits in. He could barely eat. He could barely drink. He could hardly swallow. He had lost 90 pounds. He didn’t want to die, but he was ready, or resigned — “to just let it take me.”
That night, though, he had a dream. He was in a meadow. He was in a meadow on a blanket. He was in a meadow on a blanket with his wife and three daughters — his 6-year-old and his 8-year-old from his current wife, his 18-year-old from his first — and they were laughing and laughing, and down from the sky came a warm, bright ball of light. His little one reached out to touch it. It pulsed, and it grew. And all of a sudden everybody else was gone. He heard music. Pink Floyd. “Wish You Were Here.” And from the light came a voice. “Get up, get dressed.” Again. “Get up, get dressed.” Again, and again, and again, not mean but insistent. “Get up, get dressed.”
Caputo did what he was told.
He got up.
He called his wife, and he asked her to bring to the hospital his Oxford shoes, his starched white shirt and his silver tie, his three-piece suit and his homburg hat.
After the end of his last treatment, he went home, to his house in East Aurora all of 30-some paces across the street from Immaculate Conception, his church. Recovery, though, was in some ways even worse than the treatments themselves — quarantining upstairs, “like a ghost in the attic,” as he put it, watching his kids in the yard from the window of his room, subsisting on a liquid diet, his throat nearly swollen shut, propped in a chair using a handheld machine to suck from his airways the accumulating mucus.
It’s what he was doing on January 6.
He watched on his TV as the people stormed the steps of the Capitol, the steps where he used to sit and eat salami and cheese sandwiches for lunch in late ’88, ’89 and ’90, when he was the assistant director of the House Radio and Television Correspondents’ Gallery. If the dream on Thanksgiving made Caputo just get back up, what he watched now shocked him, “shook” him — “arguably,” he thought, people “who I might’ve had a beer with,” now part of a mob attacking police.
Going on two months later, on February 26, Caputo’s cancer scans came back clean.
Early the following week, I sent him the first text, asking how he was. “I’m just listening to the bells,” he said from his house within eyeshot and earshot of Immaculate Conception. “The bells,” he said, “are the soundtrack of our lives.”
His mother was a Baptist, and his father was a Catholic. They divorced when he was a boy. First, he lived with her in rural Ohio, and then he lived with him in Western New York. And when it came time to pick a religion, he picked the Grateful Dead. “I became,” as he once described it to me, “more of a devotee of Jerry Garcia than Jesus Christ.”
Whatever it was Caputo was looking for he got from the Dead. He heard in the lyrics and felt from the crowds a certain independence and acceptance, wrapped in a haze of a package that was unpredictable, rebellious, itinerant. He’s been to hundreds of shows.
In 2000, after returning from Russia, feeling adrift and sensing a tug toward the more squarely spiritual, Caputo converted to Catholicism. Went through First Scrutiny. Started going to Mass more.
For Caputo, though, it became all the more important when he and his wife moved into the house across the street, put their daughters into the parish schools and started hearing the rhythmic sounds of the bells. “They’re supposed to remind you of things,” he once explained. “Like it’s time to go to church, it’s time to go to lunch, it’s time to go to school. It’s time to do things. But it’s also, like, every time the bell rings, it reminds you of what kind of a person you are” — or should be.
And in the past handful of years? “During the Russia investigations I learned there’s no use asking God to make my family happy without bothering with religion,” he told me. “So I steered into it.” He talked to his priest. “It’s OK,” he was told, “to pray that they fail.” And at points in this past trying year, when he couldn’t go to Mass, the church sent wafers to his house for communion.
“When people are at a crossroads, especially when they view themselves as having survived some very significant personal, professional and health challenges, they look inside maybe to reorder their priorities,” said Caputo’s friend Kendall Coffey, a prominent South Florida attorney. “He believes that God and prayer helped him get through those ordeals.”
“There’s a recognition,” said Sean Spicer, the former White House press secretary and another friend, “of what’s important and what matters.”
Chuck Sonntag, Caputo’s best friend, made it plain: “He turned to God.”
It took him to Texas. On a Sunday night in June, I rendezvoused with Caputo and Evgeny Afineevsky in the airport in Dallas. Caputo had flown in from Buffalo, and just in from Los Angeles was Afineevsky, the Oscar-nominated director of Francesco — the 2020 documentary about Pope Francis that had inspired David Socha, the CEO of Beverly Hills Teddy Bear, to want to help migrant children. What, I essentially asked them, are we doing here? Why are we about to board a flight to a small city on the border to help hand out stuffed animals?
On the plane, two rows up, I could see the back of Caputo’s head. He started sending me texts before we took off.
“When you are faced with failing health, one naturally turns to the doctors. Similarly, when you are faced with imminent death, one naturally turns to God. Doing both at once forces you to realize the terrible nature of God: He brings death to his child; He visits a pandemic upon his people,” he said.
“But if you believe these things, like I do, you also come to realize that society thrives on simple acts of goodness in the face of a terrible God. And by acts of faith, by good works, you come to realize this same God loves you, and cares for your family,” he said.
“So, in search of a simple act of faith after beating cancer and scared out of my wits, something simply good, He sent David Socha to me. And I helped David know Evgeny, who brought us the Pope. And we know this is simple because it’s just a few flawed men giving a child a toy,” he said.
“This just started with doctors, and God,” he said, “and a toymaker who saw a movie and called me.”
Caputo had with him his copy of Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis, one of the most seminal books about faith ever written. His favorite chapter, Caputo told me, is the last chapter — “The New Men” — in which Lewis talks of “the process of turning a horse into a winged creature,” “not mere improvement but Transformation.”
“The principle,” Lewis writes, “runs through all life from top to bottom. Give up yourself, and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it.”
In McAllen, after the work at the respite center, dinner felt like the start of a joke. A nun, a documentary filmmaker, a reporter and Michael Caputo walk into a restaurant …
“There is nothing coincidental about any of this,” Caputo said to Sister Norma as we sat down at The Patio on Guerra two blocks over. He told her about his plan to pursue a master’s in theology. He showed her pictures on his phone of his two youngest daughters. He talked about their pending move to Florida.
“A blessing,” she said.
“Financially, we are — we have absolutely no capacity to move, so we’re just … leaving,” he said.
“A leap of faith,” she said.
“There will be a net. I’m sure. I’m sure,” he said. “A family in our situation needs to have a reboot. After the last four years, we need to restart, like you’re unplugging and plugging in your computer. Part of that is relocation. And to what? To where? I found the most attractive thing to me was my faith. So, I was looking at houses near and homes in communities that are centered around a church. I wanted to live by my children’s Catholic school,” he continued. “I’m really curious about my faith. I need to be someplace where Catholicism is all around me. I’m really curious …”
Afineevsky, across the table from Caputo, said what I was thinking. “Are you curious, or are you seeking redemption?” he asked. “The Holy Bible says that the holy is not the man who’s never committed a sin but the man who knows how to seek redemption.”
Caputo balked. “I’m trying to figure out after what’s happened what’s next,” he said. “I thought I was dead …”
“And that’s why you are here,” Afineevsky said. “You’re doing good things. And you need to continue to do good things. And then you will find, through faith, through dedication to God, through doing good things …”
“But I’m going to get a master’s in theology because I’m curious,” Caputo said. “I am not sorry for anything I have done. Nothing. I’m not sorry.”
I looked at Sister Norma. “What,” I asked her, “is Michael here doing?”
“What I’ve heard,” she said, turning to Caputo, “I think God has stretched out his hand to you, and you’re letting him take you forward, and you’re curious about where that …”
“I’m not afraid,” he said.
“I see you with this openness to seeing what God has for you,” she continued. “And you’re not holding back. And you don’t have all the answers.”
Caputo turned to me now. “I told you about the dream I had,” he said. I turned to the others. “Do you know about the dream?”
“Tell me,” Sister Norma said. And so he did, talking for nearly 20 minutes, his eyes at times reddening with tears. He told her about the meadow, about the music, about the bright ball of light. “Get up, get dressed, get up, get dressed …”
“He chose you to continue,” she said. “There’s something more there for you that He wants.”
“I’m trying to understand that,” he said. “To discover what that is.”
“Sometimes, we miss understanding what it is,” she said, “because there’s so much noise in our lives that we don’t listen to God’s presence. And you’re right to listen.”
I looked at Caputo. I looked at Sister Norma. “Is it problematic,” I asked her, “that Michael doesn’t have regrets?”
“Regrets,” she said, “hold you in the past … keep you in the negative part of what you did wrong. God is the deliberator of all our past sins and all our past actions. He wants us,” said Sister Norma, “to move forward.”
He had his Buffalo-area going-away party late last month in Orchard Park. Sonntag, his best friend, a double amputee in a wheelchair and a fellow Deadhead, welcomed me to his home, where he makes extra cash when he lets people park in his yard for Bills games. The crowd included a couple of local politicos, but it was more a motley crew, bikers and drinkers and spirited talkers. Caputo sipped nonalcoholic beer because his doctors say he should no longer drink. On account of radiation-wrought lymphedema, he wore for a spell a compression bandage on his neck. Some of the people on hand to see him off had known him all the way back when he was a wayward teen. “The only reason he’s leaving is he’s afraid for his family,” said one friend. “This move is kind of like going into the witness protection program in slow motion,” said another. “I’m going to miss all this,” said Caputo.
The next morning in East Aurora, he went to Mass across the street from his house, sitting in a back left pew with his attentive, well-behaved girls. “It’s hard,” he told me outside the church, tearing up a bit, “because it’s their school, too.” As for the packing? “A dead sprint,” he said.
Caputo and his wife and his friends filled the back of a rented yellow Penske truck parked in his driveway. On the way to the hardware store to get more boxes and bins, I asked about his elderly dad. “He thinks that we don’t have any choice,” he said. “He thinks if I were a Democrat everything would be fine. And I think he’s right.” It started to spit rain. Back at the house, he downed a chocolate Ensure. “I’m supposed to drink one of these,” he said, “every time I feel weak.” Not until he was gone did he put his house up for sale.
I’ve heard from him regularly as he’s been settling in, in his new home, in his new life in Florida. He put on the front of his fridge a magnet with a quote from the 19th-century French artist Paul Gaugin: “Civilization is what makes you sick.” He started working last week for a St. Petersburg-based public adjuster firm in addition to a PR job for a forthcoming Spanish-language media outlet out of Miami. He went to orientation for his master’s in theology program toting a Grateful Dead lunchbox. His first class? It’s on … C.S. Lewis. “Weirdly coincidental,” he texted. “But not really,” he added with all but a wink.
“Red state, red county, red town,” he said of his new spot, but he wears an N95 to Mass, and his wife and daughters wear their cloth masks. There were, he said, several hundred people there a couple Sundays back, and theirs were the only masks he saw. Some of his “dearest friends” are anti-mask, and anti-vaccine, too—but Caputo recently and enthusiastically received a third Moderna shot.
Lately, he has dropped into my phone what have felt like almost wistful missives. He texted me an old picture of himself with August West, his parrot, piloting Maribel, his tug — followed by a new one of the two of them now, back in Florida but not at sea, the aging Augie perched on a bike but still with him. He sent me a picture in which he was driving his smiling daughters in a golf cart to their new Catholic school. He sent me a picture of himself wearing a T-shirt on the front of which was an image of Jerry Garcia that frankly was evocative of Obama ’08. “HOPE,” it said.
“I was a smash—I’m a smashmouth politician,” he said in a recent phone call that lasted an hour and 45 minutes. “I didn’t sit down to discuss with people I disagreed with the fundamental nature of the American republic—I swung at them and hit them in the nose. And I’m not comfortable with that anymore. I’m not. I can’t be. I damn near died from it. It’s a fact. It nearly killed me.”
Friends have told me he’s changed. “This was a life-altering event for him,” Aaron Pomerantz, a non-politics friend, said of Caputo’s cancer. “My sense is he’s much more focused on not trying to right the world and to do the right thing and take care of his family.”
“I think,” Caputo continued on the long call, “Thanksgiving made me want to live, and to understand that I was supposed to, but the path to really turning away from smashmouth politics and understand that there was far more to this was an iterative process, a kind of a gradual shift that was hastened by January 6. Because that was the first time I saw a wedge between me and otherwise allies, because I never, ever would have done that, ever, because all I could do was see myself sitting there as a young man, staring out over the Mall, eating my sandwich.”
But that reverie aside, Caputo also has not stopped sending me texts, too, of screenshots of tweets of relative nobodies saying things that are mean when they mention his name. I’ve come to expect occasional, interspersed gripes, fielding complaints about Mueller and other investigators, about Democratic members of Congress, about press coverage he considered unfair from his months at HHS or before.
“One thing I learned to do in the Trump era: I learned to hate,” he once said to me in a text. “Now I know hate and it’s really unsettling.” It surprised me that he was only realizing this now. I shot him a screenshot of my own: “Hate is a stronger motivator than love.” I’d starred it in my copy of Stone’s Rules — the 2018 book by his brother-like mentor. Stone’s assessment: “Only a candy-ass would think otherwise.” Caputo’s response: “No, Roger is on the nose as usual: hate motivates,” he texted. “But it also consumes. I’m consumed.”
Lose your life and you will save it?
Friends grant that he hasn’t changed completely. “Michael can’t help himself with politics,” one told me recently. “It’s ingrained. He is who he is. And will that change? I don’t know.” After initially shutting down his accounts, Caputo’s back on Facebook, and he’s back on Twitter, defending Florida Governor Ron DeSantis among other battles.
“There is a road, no simple highway,” as the Dead said in “Ripple.” And it’s hard sometimes not to see Caputo as an embodiment of the costs of the country’s constant discord — as well as the intractable challenge of ridding the body politic of its cultural and political rigidity and rifts.
I like Caputo. I like talking to him, even if from time to time he can natter a bit. Generally, I find him interesting and affable. I’m also a father of daughters, and I’ve heard his voice choke with emotion when he talks about his. “Something happened in that hospital bed,” he texted the first time he told me about the dream. “I’m not going to waste this,” he said.
Even so, the man I saw in McAllen still can sound more like the person from the Facebook Live than a follower of the famously liberal pope. Last week, when we got on the topic of January 6, I pressed him: “Who do you blame?”
“I blame a hardcore cadre of men who came there to cause trouble, and it went down exactly as they planned,” he said. “I know they exist. I blame them.”
“You do not blame Donald Trump?”
“No. Not at all.”
“You do not blame Roger Stone?”
“And you don’t blame yourself?”
I suggested one could draw a line from Carl Paladino and “mad as hell” in 2010 to the violence at the Capitol in 2021 — use anger and hate as political fuel for enough time, and the basest of the masses lose sight of the boundaries of acceptable partisan disagreements. “Lots of people immediately would say,” I said, “the person who did that the best in the last six years in this country is Donald J. Trump.”
“The Russia investigation is completely bogus, absolutely contrived,” Caputo said. “When he saw the level of cynicism that it took for the American media to cooperate so closely with American Democrats to further that lie, to try to remove him from office, to try to stop his agenda, he turned it up a notch. To the people who say there’s no one who is better at this than Donald Trump, I say to you: Then why the hell did you push him there?”
And January 6? “I believe they were manipulated,” Caputo said of those who were arrested for their acts at the Capitol. “I believe January 6 is being used by the people who put Biden in charge.”
“Do you think,” I now had at to ask, “Joe Biden was legitimately elected president?”
“I think,” Caputo said, “the jury is out.”
Early the next morning my phone dinged with a string of texts from Caputo.
“I want to be very clear. Abundantly clear. Unconfusing. No mincing words.”
“I believe Covid-19 was created in and released from the Wuhan lab, and the work to defeat the very real pandemic that resulted was manipulated to also assure the defeat of Donald Trump,” he said.
“I believe the 2020 elections were fraudulent in many states and the results were manipulated to assure the defeat of Donald Trump,” he said.
“I believe the same cynical federal authorities and bureaucrats who tried and failed to destroy my family with the bogus Russia investigations created a similarly anti-American plan that created or worsened illegal activity at the U.S. Capitol,” he said.
“Importantly, I’m wide open to changing my mind on all three points. As they say: Prove me wrong,” he said.
“My pursuit of, for lack of better shorthand, C.S. Lewis’ ‘new man’ does not mean I must turn my back on my political beliefs or people I love and lifelong friends like Roger Stone and Donald Trump,” he said, “and others with shared ideas that offend progressives who would actually prefer I died. In fact, it’s quite the opposite: I want to be a new man to defend my beliefs, defend my friends and win with sound ideas, not by trench warfare campaign battles. That’s a younger man’s game now. My new role requires far more from me.”