Politico

‘Helping the president’: HHS official sought to rebrand coronavirus campaign


The Trump appointee who steered a $300 million taxpayer-funded ad campaign to “defeat despair” about the coronavirus privately pitched a different theme last month: “Helping the President will Help the Country.”

That proposal, which came in a meeting between Trump administration officials and campaign contractors, is among documents obtained by the House Oversight Committee that further illustrate how political considerations shaped the massive campaign as officials rushed to get public service announcements on the air before Election Day. The committee shared the documents with POLITICO, which first detailed the campaign in a series of reports last month.

For instance, contractors vetted at least 274 potential celebrity contributors for their stances on gay rights, gun control and the 2016 election before allowing them to participate in the campaign. One promised public service announcement, which would have also featured infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci, was nixed because the celebrity who was set to participate with Fauci had been critical of President Donald Trump, according to documents.

The official overseeing the campaign — Michael Caputo, who Trump personally tapped as the health department’s top spokesperson — also sought to overrule the career civil servants assigned to the campaign, directly urging contractors to rush production of ads with celebrities like Trump-supporting actor Antonio Sabato, Jr.

“We must film them ASAP — we need content in the can now,” Caputo wrote in an email to contractors on Sept. 13, three days before he took a medical leave from the health department. A federal official subsequently removed Caputo from the email chain and reiterated that only two career civil servants on the chain could provide “actionable direction” to the contractors on how to proceed.

Caputo also pitched the idea of framing the ad campaign around helping the president. He made the suggestion in a meeting with communications firm Burson Cohn & Wolfe, positioning it as an effort to encourage Trump’s base to buy into public health concepts like wearing masks, according to notes dated Sept. 17 and provided to the committee. “Caputo speaks in ‘taglines,’ and high level concepts,” the contractors noted.

Burson, which is a subcontractor on the campaign, did not respond to a request for comment.

Although Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar has since ordered a review of the campaign — which two HHS officials told POLITICO is no longer slated to run before the election, if at all — House Oversight leaders said that the administration had failed to comply with repeated demands to produce separate, internal documents related to the campaign.

“Your failure to provide the documents we requested — especially in light of the information we have learned from the contractors — appears to be part of a cover-up to conceal the Trump Administration’s misuse of hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars for partisan political purposes ahead of the upcoming election, and to direct taxpayer funds to friends and allies of Trump Administration officials,” Reps. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) and Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.) wrote to Azar in an accompanying letter.

HHS did not respond to specific questions about whether Caputo’s interventions were appropriate, who directed the vetting of celebrities’ political stances and other questions about the scope of the campaign.

“The review is ongoing,” an HHS spokesperson said in a statement. “The plan has always been to only use materials reviewed by a department-wide team of experts including scientists from CDC who will ensure the latest scientific information is used to provide important public health, therapeutic and vaccine information.”

The spokesperson said that Azar was not aware of Caputo’s close involvement in the campaign. The spokesperson also said that “HHS has maintained an open line of communication with members of Congress and we will continue to regularly and proactively update members and their staff.”

All but one of the documents released by the House committee Thursday were uncovered by their probe of the health department’s work with Atlas Research, which POLITICO revealed had won a separate $15 million contract about one week before a $250 million contract was awarded to strategic communications firm Fors Marsh.

Atlas did not respond to a request for comment.

“The American public can be assured this public education campaign is being developed based on the best available science and public health strategies to slow the spread of Covid-19,” said Fors Marsh CEO Ben Garthwaite, who drew a line between the contract awarded to his firm and what he said were separate efforts to enlist celebrities. “Fors Marsh Group was not involved with that work,” Garthwaite said.

The planned campaign — with contractors racing to produce ads with celebrities to air before the election — collapsed following a POLITICO investigation last month, with actor Dennis Quaid and gospel singer CeCe Winans withdrawing their participation and other celebrities pulling out. Both Quaid and Winans posted videos insisting that their participation was solely focused on promoting public health and was not intended to be political.

The campaign was the brainchild of Caputo, who was installed as the health department’s top spokesperson in April and who abruptly requisitioned $300 million from the Centers for Disease Control to fund the campaign this summer. The health department then recommended that contractors hire one of Caputo’s business partners, Den Tolmor, to film the celebrity videos, although the Russian-born filmmaker had no prior experience with U.S. public health campaigns.

Caputo declined comment, citing his treatment for cancer. Tolmor did not respond to a request for comment.


One document obtained by the committee, “PSA Celebrity Tracker,” includes details about the politics of hundreds of celebrities considered for participation in the campaign, including whether the performers had been personally critical of Trump.

For instance, actor Zach Galifianakis was flagged because he “refused to host President Trump on talk show.” Director and performer Judd Apatow “believes Trump does not have the intellectual capacity to run as President, want[s] him to be removed out of office in 2020,” read another line item.

At least 22 other performers were flagged for their previous support of former President Barack Obama. Singer Adam Levine was labeled a “liberal democrat who supported Obama and fights for gay rights”; singer Christina Aguilera “is an Obama-supporting Democrat and a gay-rights supporting liberal.”

Some celebrities were flagged for policy stances unrelated to the president. The document lists actress “Julianna Moore [sic.]” as a “Liberal Democrat, pro-choicer, LGBT rights supporter, gun control campaigner.”

Two of the performers who eventually sat for interviews with administration officials, gospel singer Winans and Hasidic singer Shulem Lemmer, do not appear on the “PSA Celebrity Tracker” obtained by the House committee.

While it’s not clear from the documents how many of the celebrities were ultimately approached — or even aware of the administration’s interest in their participation — at least 22 performers are listed as “declined,” including singers like Britney Spears, Carrie Underwood and Luke Bryan, and actors like Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson and Hugh Jackman. Restaurateur Guy Fieri is listed as “overcommitted.”

According to a separate document identified as “Celebrity Participant Status Chart,” only 10 celebrities were ultimately approved to participate in the campaign, including Quaid, singer Garth Brooks and television host Dr. Mehmet Oz.

Meanwhile, comedian George Lopez had committed to appearing in the campaign, having been promised a sit-down with Fauci, according to separate documents reviewed by POLITICO. But Atlas’ notes of a Sept. 29 meeting with Trump officials states that the Lopez ad was “not moving forward due to previous concerns regarding his comments regarding the President.”

The ad campaign has been viewed as an expensive boondoggle inside HHS, with millions of dollars set aside to arrange and even film some celebrity sit-downs that may now never air.

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