November 28, 2020

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Trump administration vetted political views of 274 celebrities for botched Covid ad campaign

Performer Marc Anthony wanted the Trump administration to agree — in writing — that it wouldn’t use his comments for a public service campaign on the coronavirus to be used for President Donald Trump’s reelection.

Actor Dennis Quaid and singers CeCe Winans and Shulem Lemmer taped their PSAs before withdrawing their consent to participate.

Rapper Ludacris, actress Betty White, Britney Spears, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and “The Daily Show” host Trevor Noah, among others, all turned them down.

The Department of Health and Human Services paid a contractor to vet 274 celebrities for their views on everything from gay marriage to abortion rights as part of a $265 million public service campaign on the coronavirus, top House Democrats said in a new letter to HHS Secretary Alex Azar.

The ad campaign was designed to advance Trump’s “partisan political agenda” ahead of the Nov. 3 presidential election and may have violated federal contracting law, according to the joint inquiry by three key House panels. Newly released documents and emails between a contractor for HHS and agency officials shed light on the extent to which political interference shaped the public health campaign.

The inquiry found that Michael Caputo, a former Trump campaign official who was appointed this summer to ensure HHS’ coronavirus strategy was in line with the White House, sought to intervene directly in communications between agency contractors and employees. The work on the project continued even after HHS announced that Caputo was taking a 60-day leave of absence.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney, who chairs the Committee on Oversight and Reform; Rep. James Clyburn, who runs the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis; and Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, who runs the Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy, released some of the documents along with the letter on Thursday.

The “PSA Celebrity Tracker” used by HHS details the political views of more than 200 celebrities considered for the campaign, according to an internal HHS document dated Oct. 23 that was produced by contractor Atlas Research.

The document lists the political leanings of various artists, their arrest history, drinking or drug problems, sexual misconduct or sex tapes as well as which segment of the population they appealed to.

Singer Adam Levine is a “Liberal democrat who supported Obama and fights for gay rights,” but he appealed to the general population as well as to “super spreaders.” Also popular with “super spreaders,” singer Lady Gaga hasn’t “specifically claimed any political side,” although she vocally supported Hillary in 2016, according to the list. Actor and singer Neil Patrick Harris was popular among the LGBTQ community as well as the general populace. He also “Performed at the Republican National Convention in 2016,” the document notes, “but appears to be a liberal Democrat.”

Of actor Danny Devito, the document says pointedly: “Democrat, hates Republicans.” And actor Jack Black is “known to be a classic Hollywood Liberal,” according to the document.

Another document from Atlas, dated Sept. 29, includes notes from a meeting with HHS officials where they said the PSA with comedian George Lopez is “Not moving forward due to previous concerns regarding his comments regarding the President.”

“Spokespeople for public service campaigns should be chosen on their ability to reach the target audience, not their political affiliation,” the House Democrats said in their letter to Azar. “Yet, documents produced by the contractors indicate that the Trump Administration vetted spokespeople based on their political positions and whether they support President Trump.”

Politico first reported on the documents.

The ad campaign is being implemented through at least two contracts, the committee said: a $250 million contract awarded to communications firm Fors Marsh and a $15 million contract awarded to D.C.-based Atlas. Most of the documents obtained by the House panel were produced by Atlas.

Representatives from Atlas did not immediately return CNBC’s request for comment.

Ben Garthwaite, CEO of Fors Marsh, said by email that his firm has not been involved in the vetting of celebrities and that “we have never met Mr. Caputo nor have we had contact with any Trump-appointed HHS officials.”

An HHS spokeswoman said a “review is ongoing” of the campaign.

“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 spokeswoman said of the PR effort.

The lawmakers published emails that show Caputo sought to intervene in official communications between contractors and career HHS employees, directing representatives of Atlas to rush production of content for the campaign with celebrities like Ludacris and Trump-supporting actor Antonio Sabato.

“We must film them ASAP – we need content in the can now,” Caputo wrote to employees at Atlas on Sept. 13, the same day Caputo published a video on his Facebook page accusing CDC scientists of sedition.

In response to Caputo’s email, a contract officer from the Food and Drug Administration removed Caputo from the email chain and congratulated the contractors on “doing an outstanding job navigating a complex environment.” The official, April Brubach, told the contractors that only authorized personnel can “provide actionable direction.”

HHS encouraged at least one contractor to subcontract with DD&T, a company run by Caputo’s long-time business associate, Den Tolmor, according to documents released Thursday.

“This raises serious questions about whether there has been a violation of federal contracting law related to conflicts of interest,” the lawmakers wrote in their letter to Azar.

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