Oct 29, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Top HHS spokesperson pitched coronavirus ad campaign as "helping the president"

Michael Caputo stands in a suit and walks down a hallway
Michael Caputo. Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

In September, Health and Human Services spokesperson Michael Caputo privately pitched one branch of the agency's $250 million coronavirus ad campaign with the theme: "Helping the President will Help the Country," according to documents released by House Democrats on the Oversight Committee on Thursday.

Why it matters: These are the latest documents that suggest the deep politicization of the Trump administration's coronavirus response.

  • Context: Caputo, a former member of the Trump campaign with no scientific background, reportedly accused career government scientists of "sedition" in September and said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a “resistance unit” that's trying to undermine Trump, per the New York Times.
  • Politico and trade publication PRWeek first detailed the agency's $250 million contract with a communications firm to "defeat despair and inspire hope" about the coronavirus pandemic.

Details: In a Sept. 15 meeting with subcontractor Burson Cohn & Wolfe and Atlas Research, which received a separate $15 million contract with HHS, Caputo pushed to title the agency's coronavirus ad campaign "Helping the President will Help the Country."

  • Caputo "attempted to insert himself into the process for reviewing public service announcements (PSAs)," the committee says — which "eventually provoked FDA career staff to warn contractors against compliance with his unauthorized and unethical interference."
  • Fors Marsh, the strategic communications firm that received the initial $250 million contract, laid out four "crisis scenarios" when planning for the campaign ad — including "accusations of using a pubic health campaign to promote a political message, instead of a scientific one."

Of note: One document obtained by the Oversight Committee indicated the Trump administration asked contractors to vet at least 274 celebrities for the ad campaign and rejected those who had publicly criticized the president or supported gay rights.

The other side: "While testifying before the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, Secretary Azar announced that he had 'ordered a strategic review of this public health education campaign that will be led by top public health and communications experts to determine whether the campaign serves important public health purposes,'" an HHS spokesperson said.

Read the Oversight Committee’s letter to HHS.

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