WASHINGTON – A $ 265 million public campaign to ‘conquer desperation’ around the coronavirus was planned in part around the politically colored theme of ‘helping the president will help the country’, according to documents released Thursday by House investigators .
Michael R. Caputo, deputy secretary for public affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services, and others involved have envisioned a celebrity campaign to boost Americans’ morale, but lawmakers have said they seek to rule out celebrities who had supported gay sex marriage rights or who had publicly denigrated President Trump. Actor Zach Galifianakis, for example, was apparently ignored because he refused to have Mr. Trump on his talk show “Between Two Ferns”. (Mr. Galifianakis had President Barack Obama on the irreverent show.)
Eventually, the campaign collapsed at the end of September amid recriminations and investigations.
Democrats on the House Oversight and Reform Committee and the select subcommittee on the coronavirus crisis released the records, saying “these documents contain extremely disturbing revelations.” They accused Alex M. Azar II, Secretary of Health and Human Services, of “cover-up to cover up the Trump administration’s misuse of hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars for partisan political purposes ahead of the next election “.
Mr. Caputo, a fierce ally of Mr. Trump, had drawn attention to the PR campaign last month in a lengthy Facebook rant, saying the president had personally put him in charge of the project and that career government scientists were engaging in “Sedition” to undermine the president. He is on sick leave to fight cancer.
This public relations effort is now in ruins. Celebrities chosen to promote the campaign, including actor Dennis Quaid, have stepped down. Mr Azar ordered a review of whether the initiative served “important public health objectives”. Senior health department officials have tried in private to distance themselves from the project.
“The plan has always been to only use documents reviewed by a team of department-wide experts,” a spokesperson for the department said in a statement.
The new documents indicate that Mr Quaid stood out mainly because he passed the check. Documents show that entrepreneurs involved in the public relations effort sought the political opinions and backgrounds of at least 274 celebrities in what appeared to be an effort to root out anti-Trump sentiment that could sway the initiative.
Mr. Galifianakis “refused to host President Trump on a talk show,” read one notation. Bryan Cranston, the anti-hero of the ‘Breaking Bad’ television show, “denounced Trump’s attacks on journalists during his Tony Awards speech in 2019.” Actor Jack Black was “known to be a classic Hollywood liberal”.
Singer Christina Aguilera “is a Democrat supporting Obama and a Liberal supporting gay rights.” Adam Levine of the Maroon 5 group “fights for gay rights”. Justin Timberlake “supports gay marriage”.
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Dakota Johnson, the actress, “wore a pin to support Planned Parenthood.” And Sarah Jessica Parker, the actress, has been called an “LGBTQ supporter, including marriage equality.”
In the end, only 10 of the hundreds of potential celebrities considered for the campaign were approved, the documents suggest.
The new documents deal with a $ 15 million contract awarded to Atlas Research and signed at the end of August. They say government officials successfully pushed the company to hire three little-known contractors with no obvious expertise to join the larger campaign.
When Mark H. Chichester, the president of Atlas, attempted to track down these subcontractors, he found “small stores with few products in the public domain,” according to documents released by the committee.
One was a one-person surgery run by a state-level Republican pollster, Mr Chichester wrote. Another appeared to be “a small operation – maybe one man”.
A third was a “platform owned by Den Tolmor, a Russian-born business associate of Caputo,” Mr. Chichester said.
In a September meeting with a subcontractor, Mr Caputo suggested “slogans” for the effort, some of which had a distinctly partisan tone, such as “helping the president will help the country,” according to notes released by legislators. Mr Caputo said the theme “would appeal to his base in terms of wearing masks, vaccines,” the notes say.
Mr Caputo appeared to be trying to consolidate support from supporters of Mr Trump who might be skeptical of wearing masks or obtaining a vaccine by tying these activities to support for the president. The main contractor, Atlas Research, could not be reached immediately for comment. A person familiar with Mr Caputo’s version of events, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Mr Caputo had never done business with Mr Tolmor, the subcontractor, and had not attempted intervene improperly in the procurement process.
But in a 2018 press release and in at least two media reports that year, Mr. Caputo was described as the marketing director of a movie and video streaming company co-founded by Mr. Tolmor. And documents released by congressional investigators suggest that contract agents from the Food and Drug Administration, part of the Department of Health and Human Services, were so concerned about Mr. Caputo’s involvement in the process that the he was pulled from an email chain and warned Atlas executives that only contract agents could advise the company on how to meet its government obligations.
The public relations campaign has become politically toxic even for those who signed up. Mr Quaid recently backed down after recording an interview with Dr Anthony S. Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease specialist, claiming in an Instagram post that his role was not an endorsement by Mr Trump and that he “ felt a certain indignation. and a lot of disappointment ”after public reports on the campaign. Singer CeCe Winans also dropped out.
Democratic lawmakers have questioned campaign funding after Dr Robert R. Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in September that $ 300 million had been transferred from his agency’s budget to the office of Mr. Caputo, and that the CDC was given no role in the campaign, which aimed to “conquer despair”.
The federal government awarded the campaign’s largest contract to the Fors Marsh Group, a research firm in northern Virginia. A ministry official said the prize, in the amount of $ 250 million, was a tender and that Mr. Caputo had “nothing to do” with it.
On Sunday, the Wall Street Journal reported that as part of that same campaign, Mr Caputo offered early access to a coronavirus vaccine to a group of artists who play Santa Claus, Ms Claus and the elves. In recordings obtained by The Journal, Mr Caputo said the campaign would feature regional events with “beautiful educational films” and that Santas would take part in dozens of towns. Health ministry officials said Santa’s plan was rejected. Mr. Caputo also did not have the authority to grant special access to a vaccine.
In their letter dated Wednesday, Democrats berated Mr. Azar for failing to hand over contract documents, including those related to Atlas. They wrote that it was “totally inappropriate to design a taxpayer-funded advertising campaign to ‘help’ President Trump in the weeks and days leading up to the election.”
The letter was signed by three committee heads: Representatives Carolyn B. Maloney of New York, James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, and Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois.
Mr. Caputo has been particularly aggressive in putting the President’s optimistic turn to the pandemic. He and a former advisor he hired in the department, Dr Paul Alexander, have repeatedly tried to interfere with the CDC’s weekly bulletins on the latest research into the pandemic, lashing out at career managers for their perceived opposition to Mr. Trump. Mr Caputo asked CDC officials for the names of the authors of the reports in an attempt to locate potential anti-Trump political biases in their biographies, according to two former senior health officials.