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Documents show 'political' nature of Trump COVID ad campaign, lawmakers say

A Trump administration official suggested that the theme of a roughly $250 million taxpayer-funded ad campaign to “defeat despair” around coronavirus could be “Helping the President will Help the Country,” according to documents obtained by the House Oversight Committee. 

House Democrats said in a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar released Thursday that the suggestion from Michael Caputo, the department’s top spokesperson, who has since taken a leave of absence, showed the inappropriately political nature of the ad campaign. 

“Of course, it is completely inappropriate to frame a taxpayer-funded ad campaign around ‘helping’ President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden to nominate Linda Thomas-Greenfield for UN ambassador: reports Scranton dedicates 'Joe Biden Way' to honor president-elect Kasich: Republicans 'either in complete lockstep' or 'afraid' of Trump MORE in the weeks and days before the election,” wrote the Democratic lawmakers. 

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Notes from a contractor on the meeting with Caputo indicate he thought the theme “would appeal to [Trump’s] base in terms of wearing a mask, vaccine – Do Your Part...”

The ad campaign, which was to feature public service announcements from celebrities around defeating coronavirus, was already controversial, given suspicions that it was really a way to use taxpayer money to boost the president’s reelection campaign. 

The ad campaign is now stalled, and Azar has said it is under “review” to “determine whether the campaign serves important public health purposes.” The review is ongoing, a Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) spokesperson said Thursday. 

Caputo, the controversial figure who had accused the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) of harboring a “resistance unit” against Trump and was helping lead the ad campaign, took leave in September and later announced he has been diagnosed with cancer. 

The documents released Thursday also reveal that officials vetted celebrities that could be included in the effort to see whether they supported Trump. 

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A list of celebrities included notes about actor Zach Galifianakis, who “refused to host President Trump on talk show,” and Jennifer Lopez, who “made a political statement during her Super Bowl performance to address Trump’s immigration policies.”

All of the celebrities that had agreed to participate have since withdrawn, the lawmakers said. One of the few celebrities to film a message was Dennis Quaid, but he has since pulled out, documents show. 

While saying a review of the program is ongoing, the HHS spokesperson added: “The plan has always been to only use materials reviewed by a department-wide 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 lawmakers leading the letter, Reps. Carolyn MaloneyCarolyn Bosher MaloneyBiden aide: First Cabinet picks will be announced Tuesday, GSA holdup preventing background checks Democrats gear up for last oversight showdown with Trump House committee chairs demand briefing from GSA head on presidential transition MORE (D-N.Y.), James Clyburn (D-S.C.) and Raja KrishnamoorthiSubramanian (Raja) Raja KrishnamoorthiHHS scraps celebrity COVID-19 ad campaign aimed at 'defeating despair' Documents show 'political' nature of Trump COVID ad campaign, lawmakers say Trust and transparency are necessary to make COVID-19 vaccine successful MORE (D-Ill.), said HHS had not provided any documents, and all their materials on the campaign had so far come from contractors.  

“As we respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, HHS has maintained an open line of communication with members of Congress and we will continue to regularly and proactively update members and their staff,” the HHS spokesperson said. 

The lawmakers said the effort was not based on strong public health recommendations.  

“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,” the lawmakers wrote. “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.”