A top Trump administration official inserted “partisan political interests” into a $250 million advertising contract awarded just weeks before the election to “defeat despair and inspire hope” amid the coronavirus pandemic — going so far as to exclude celebrities seen as critical of President Donald Trump or his policies, according to documents obtained by Democratic House lawmakers.
In a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, three high-ranking Democrats wrote that documents showed that HHS Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Michael Caputo sought to use a taxpayer-funded campaign to boost the president only weeks ahead of his reelection bid. During a September meeting, for instance, he proposed that one of the themes be “Helping the President will Help the Country,” according to one document they obtained from a contractor.
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The documents show that Trump political appointees and the contractors they hired also vetted celebrities for the public health campaign based on whether they had ever criticized the president, or supported former President Barack Obama, gay rights or same-sex marriage. Of at least 274 celebrities under consideration, only 10 appear to have been approved, according to a document the lawmakers obtained.
Among those who did not make the cut were actress Jennifer Lopez, because she had criticized the president’s immigration policies at her Super Bowl performance; director Judd Apatow, because he “believes Trump does not have the intellectual capacity to run as President”; and singer-songwriter Billie Eilish, described as “not a Trump Supporter” and “destroying our country and everything we care about,” according to a document that outlines issues with numerous celebrities under consideration for the campaign.
None of the celebrity PSAs went live, and the campaign is under review at HHS. Politico first reported about the $250 million contract and the ad campaign.
The Democrats’ letter also cites an email that shows government officials encouraged Atlas Research — which Politico reported won a $15 million contract as part of the campaign — to select certain subcontractors, including DD&T, a company run by Den Tolmor, who Caputo has worked with in the past. “This raises serious questions about whether there has been a violation of federal contracting law related to conflicts of interest,” the lawmakers write.
Caputo declined to comment on the allegations. The Buffalo businessman began a 60-day leave of absence in September after he urged Trump’s supporters to prepare for an armed insurrection and accused scientists in his agency of “sedition” during a Facebook Live event. He has since said he was diagnosed with cancer and is undergoing treatment.
The HHS campaign is not the only such administration effort to become overtly partisan. Earlier this week, Trump’s Interior Secretary David Bernhardt shared a video that flashed stunning images of birds, mountains and plains over text hailing President Trump for “preserving the awesome majesty of God’s great creation.” A former Interior Department appointee called the clip propaganda.
In the case of the HHS campaign, the documents indicate that career staff members at the Food and Drug Administration, as well as contractor employees, tried to push back on some of the efforts by Caputo and his associates because of concerns about the appropriateness of making a health campaign overtly partisan.
The letter’s signatories — Reps. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., chairperson of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform; James Clyburn, D-S.C., chairperson of the Oversight committee’s select subcommittee on the coronavirus crisis; and Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., chairperson of the Oversight committee’s subcommittee on economic and consumer policy — criticized Azar for failing to provide documents they had requested about the campaign last month.
“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,” the lawmakers wrote.
They asked for Azar and HHS to produce a number of documents related to the contract by Nov. 10.
An HHS spokesperson pointed to Azar’s testimony to Congress earlier this month in which he said 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.” The spokesperson said the review continues and the agency will regularly update members of Congress and their staffs.
“The plan has always been to only use materials reviewed by a departmentwide 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 in a statement.
The documents offer numerous political observations about the celebrities being vetted for possible inclusion in the campaign. In notes detailing a Sept. 29 meeting with Trump administration officials, an Atlas official wrote, “George Lopez PSA — Not moving forward due to previous concerns regarding his comments regarding the President.”
The same document indicates that singer-songwriter Christina Aguilera “is an Obama-supporting Democrat and a gay rights supporting liberal”; singer Adam Levine is a “liberal Democrat who supported Obama and fights for gay rights”; singer-songwriter Justin Timberlake “publicly endorsed Obama and supports gay marriage”; actor Johnny Depp “appears to be aligned with the liberal left”; and actor Jack Black is “known to be a classic Hollywood liberal.”
The administration ultimately approved only 10 celebrities to participate in a PSA program: actor Dennis Quaid; gospel singer CeCe Winans; singer Marc Anthony; Hasidic singer Shulem Lemmer; Mehmet Oz, known as the television doctor Dr. Oz; country singers Billy Ray Cyrus, Miranda Lambert and Garth Brooks; former basketball player Dwyane Wade; and singer Enrique Iglesias.
Three of them sat for interviews about aspects of the pandemic, which were to be used in the ad campaign, but as of Oct. 1, all had withdrawn their consent for those interviews to be used, according to a document included in the letter.
The document also includes a column about the targeted demographic that celebrities would reach. Beyoncé, Ariana Grande, Lady Gaga, Aguilera, Depp, Jennifer Lawrence, Brad Pitt, Cardi B and Eminem are among those who officials said could target “superspreaders,” although it is unclear how they made such determinations.
Atlas brought on two other subcontractors in addition to DD&T at the government’s encouragement. Atlas President Mark Chichester wrote that he did “due diligence” on all of them, but he was unable to find much information. Of DD&T, he wrote: “Could find nothing at all on DD&T Group as a corporate entity, which I understand is an LLC platform owned by Den Tolmor, a Russian-born business associate of Caputo’s who was a co-founder of the apparently defunct Bond Film Platform.”
Chichester wrote that each of the other two subcontractors looked like a “one-man shop.”