House Oversight Committee All Up In HHS's $300 Million 'Love Me, Love My Ronas' PSA Campaign
Former Health and Human Services communications czar Michael Caputo's idiotic $300 million propaganda scheme to make Americans feel happier about the coronavirus pandemic may have fallen apart, but the House Oversight Committee isn't about to let the boondoggle get swept under the rug. Yesterday, the committee released some of the documents it's uncovered about the bizarre plan to "defeat despair and inspire hope" through a series of public service announcements timed to run right before the election, while demanding HHS Secretary Alex Azar cooperate with requests for internal HHS documents. So far, of course, the Department of Health and Human Services has been absolutely silent in the face of constitutional oversight of the Executive branch by Congress; the House is working from documents provided only by the vendors.
Caputo's scheme, those documents show, looked a hell of a lot more like an attempt to make Donald Trump look good in advance of the election, particularly since the celebrities considered for use in the campaign were vetted for whether they were hostile to Donald Trump. In a meeting with executives of one of the contractors working on the proposed public service announcements, Caputo suggested that one focus of the happy-talk campaign should be "Helping the President will Help the Country." Gosh, how could anyone see that as political?
The letter to Azar, from committee members Carolyn Maloney (D-New York), Jim Clyburn (D-South Carolina), and Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Illinois), says that Azar's failure to cooperate with the investigation "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."
But if it made people think nice things about the deadly pandemic, wouldn't that have been worth it?
While HHS hasn't been cooperating, two of the contractors, Atlas Research LLC and Fors Marsh Group, have. They both turned over documents showing Caputo was very busy trying to micro-manage the "public health" campaign so it would have a pro-Trump spin, pushing for certain celebrities he thought would reflect well on Trump. Eventually, the letter says, one of the career FDA officials actually running the project removed Caputo from the email distribution list and cautioned recipients that
Mr. Caputo's interjections were "challenging" and cautioned the contractor to "please keep in mind that only the CORs (myself and Janell) [FDA contract officers] can provide actionable direction." [...]
HHS and its contractors knew exactly what concern this PSA campaign was going to invoke. An early planning document prepared by Fors Marsh for HHS laid out four "crisis scenarios." Scenario 1 prepared for a "negative story about the campaign," specifically anticipating the following situation: "Questions are raised about motivations behind the Campaign, including accusations of using a public health campaign to promote a political message, instead of a scientific one."
The letter also notes that Atlas, which had a $15 million contract, compiled a list of 274 celebrities who might be approached to participate in the campaign. The "PSA Celebrity tracker" noted potential audiences the celebrities might appeal to, and noted various political stances taken by the celebs that could get them in trouble with Trumpworld. (There's no indication the celebrities even knew they were being considered.) Some samples, from the letter:
- Zach Galifianakis "refused to host President Trump on talk show";
- Judd Apatow "believes Trump does not have the intellectual capacity to run as President";
- Billie Eilish is "not a Trump Supporter, stated he is 'destroying our country and everything we care about'";
- Russell Simons [sic] said "Trump is the epitome of white supremacy";
- Bryan Cranston "called out Trump's attacks on journalists";
- Margaret Cho "accused Trump and Ted Cruz of being guilty of sexism, homophobia, and racism";
- Jennifer Lopez "made a political statement during her Super Bowl performance to address Trump's immigration policies"; and
- George Lopez made a "controversial statement on President Trump in 2020."
Other celebrities were nixed for having supported Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, or for taking public positions on gay rights and marriage equality, which the committee's letter notes are kind of protected by the First Amendment and have fuck-all to do with a public health information campaign.
Out of the bunch, only 10 celebs were approved, and only three actually had participated in filming spots before the whole fuck-tussle collapsed due to the attention brought to the campaign by Dan Diamond's reports for Politico. All the celebrities who had initially agreed to the effort withdrew their permission to appear. SAD.
As Wonkette's Liz Dye has noted, the dodgiest parts of the mess involve Caputo's somehow managing to redirect $300 million that was originally budgeted for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which probably could have found some use for the funds during a pandemic. Beyond that, HHS pushed Atlas Research to award Den Tolmor, a business associate of Caputo, a contract to film some of the PSAs, despite Tolmor's having no experience in doing public service campaigns.
Still, at least the American people got something out of this. We do have this lovely list of the political leanings of 274 celebrities, hooray.
And on top of that, we can look forward to eventual hearings into how the whole grift happened in the first place. Dare we hope for indictments?
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