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

Source: Politico | October 29, 2020 | Dan Diamond

Documents reveal how political considerations shaped planning for a taxpayer-funded ad blitz to ‘defeat despair’ over Covid-19.

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.

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