Health officials rated celebrities on Trump loyalty while planning ad campaign
November 1, 2020
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Jack Black, "classic Hollywood liberal," on January 22, 2017 in Park City, Utah.
Enlarge / Jack Black, “classic Hollywood liberal,” on January 22, 2017 in Park City, Utah.

Democratic House lawmakers have had no luck getting the Department of Health and Human Services to hand over information on its $250 million advertising campaign to “defeat despair and inspire hope” amid the devastating coronavirus pandemic.

But, the lawmakers have been able to collect documents from the federal contractors working on the campaign—and the details in those documents are “extremely troubling,” they say.

In a scathing letter to HHS Secretary Alex Azar, the lawmakers revealed some of those details, which show blatant political partisanship. For instance, A-list celebrities considered for pandemic-related public service announcements were individually rated based on their loyalty to Trump and other political leanings. Of the 274 celebrities reviewed, only 10 made the cut. The rest were rejected, including Jack Black, who was dubbed a “classic Hollywood liberal” and Judd Apatow, who, the documents say, “believes Trump does not have the intellectual capacity to run as President.”

The documents also show attempts by career staff at the Food and Drug Administration to quash those “inappropriate efforts.”

Campaign origins

The campaign was hatched from the mind of HHS spokesperson Michael Caputo and is funded with $300 million that Caputo and his team managed to siphon from money congressionally budgeted for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of that money, $250 million went to Fors Marsh Group, a Virginia-based market-research and communications firm. Another $15 million went to Atlas Research LLC. Some of the contractors and subcontractors had ties to the Trump administration, the lawmakers noted.

Despite the hefty funding, the campaign has been stymied by internal disorganization and indifference from celebrities. Of the ten deemed worthy of the PSAs, only three sat down for interviews. As of October 1, all three had withdrawn their consent to use the footage and refused to participate further. The campaign’s future was further imperiled by Caputo’s decision last month to take a leave of absence from the department.

Caputo is a Trump loyalist, protégé of Roger Stone, and former Moscow-based political adviser who was installed at the HHS by the White House in April. He bowed out of his post at the department shortly after making several alarming statements. Those included accusing government scientists of sedition and warning of left-wing “hit squads” preparing for an armed insurrection in the wake of the election. He has since said that he has been diagnosed with cancer and is receiving treatment.

“Political propaganda”

Amid the turmoil, current and former HHS staff had mounted internal resistance to Caputo’s campaign, regarding it as nothing more than a public-relations blitz to bolster the prospects of Trump’s reelection campaign. The Democratic lawmakers likewise called the campaign’s efforts “a vehicle for taxpayer-funded political propaganda.”

The details seem to support that take. Documents from Atlas and subcontractors reveal that Caputo suggested that one of the themes of the campaign should be “Helping the President will Help the Country.”

A central feature of the campaign was to have celebrities interview government officials, who would discuss the pandemic and the administration’s response. This is where the Trump loyalty ratings came in while vetting 274 celebrities of interest. Most of the celebrities were deemed hostile to Trump and his policies. Billie Eilish was eliminated from consideration because she is “not a Trump Supporter [and] stated he is ‘destroying our country and everything we care about.’” Russell Simmons was likewise removed for saying, “Trump is the epitome of white supremacy,” according to the documents.

In addition to their support of Trump, campaign planners also noted the celebrities’ stances on gay rights, same-sex marriages, and other positions deemed part of the “liberal left.” Justin Timberlake was rejected because he “publicly endorsed Obama and supports gay marriage.” Bryan Cranston was nixed from the list because he “called out Trump’s attacks on journalists.” Jennifer Lopez was noted for making “a political statement during her Super Bowl performance to address Trump’s immigration policies.”

Only 10 celebrities of the 274 made the cut, according to Caputo and his contractors. The list included Dennis Quaid, singer CeCe Winans, and singer Shulem Lemmer, who ended up sitting down for interviews but later pulled out of the campaign.

The other seven were: Marc Anthony, Mehmet Oz (Dr. Oz), Billy Ray Cyrus, Miranda Lambert, Garth Brooks, Dwyane Wade, and Enrique Iglesias. The documents note that, when approached about participating in the campaign, Marc Anthony sought an amendment in the contract to ensure that none of his interview would be used in advertisements for Trump’s re-election campaign. It’s unclear how the campaign organizers responded to the request, but the documents do clearly indicate that Anthony ultimately refused to participate.

During this political review, Caputo and another HHS political appointee, Michael Pratt, tried to insert themselves in the process. On an email thread between FDA contract officers involved in the campaign and subcontractors, who were getting approval to approach certain celebrities, Caputo interjected with his own approval list. This prompted an FDA contract official to simply remove Caputo from the email thread and compliment the contractors on “navigating a complex environment.” The official also noted Caputo’s meddling was “challenging,” but they said: “please keep in mind that only the [FDA contract officers] can provide actionable direction.”

In summary, the Democratic lawmakers wrote in their letter:

It is critical that HHS provide accurate, nonpolitical public health information to the American people that encourages mask wearing, social distancing, and other science-backed public health recommendations. Yet, the documents we have obtained indicate that HHS political appointees sought to use taxpayer dollars to advance a partisan political agenda and direct taxpayer money to their friends and allies.

The letter—signed by Reps. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), chairwoman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform; James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), chairman of the Oversight committee’s select subcommittee on the coronavirus crisis; and Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.), chairman of the Oversight committee’s subcommittee on economic and consumer policy—requested further documents and information about the campaign.

Since Caputo’s departure, Secretary Azar has said that he ordered a “strategic review” of the campaign to “determine whether the campaign serves important public health purposes.”

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