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Tuesday, September 29, 2020

HHS ad blitz sputters as celebrities back away


They made a list of more than 30 celebrities including Justin Timberlake, Taylor Swift and Billy Joel to appear in their ad campaign to "inspire hope" about coronavirus, but they ended up with only Dennis Quaid, CeCe Winans and Hasidic singer Shulem Lemmer.

The health department’s $300 million-plus, taxpayer-funded vehicle to boost confidence in President Donald Trump’s response to the pandemic is sputtering. Celebrities are refusing to participate, and staff are arraying against it. Some complain of the unstated aim of helping Trump’s re-election. Others point to an ill-prepared video team and a 22-year-old political appointee who has repeatedly asserted control despite having no public health expertise, according to six people with close knowledge of the campaign and documents related to its operations.

Interviews with participants and others in the Health and Human Services Department paint a picture of a chaotic effort, scrambling to meet an unofficial Election Day deadline, floundering in the wake of the medical leave of its architect, Michael Caputo, and running up against increasing resistance among career staff.

"This is a boondoggle," said an HHS official who requested anonymity to discuss a sensitive department project. "We're in the middle of a pandemic … we could use that quarter of a billion dollars on buying PPE [personal protective equipment], not promoting PSAs with C-list celebrities."

Just three celebrities have recorded public service advertisements so far — Quaid, Winans and Lemmer — with Quaid and other potential participants reconsidering their involvement or dropping out altogether after a POLITICO report on Friday on the unusual roots of the campaign. A hoped-for recording with TV host Dr. Mehmet Oz also collapsed late last week, and representatives for other celebrities told POLITICO on Monday that they have little to no interest in joining the effort amid the scrutiny.

"It would be malpractice to my client," said the representative for one celebrity on the administration's wish list, requesting anonymity to avoid linking the client's name with a politically sensitive issue. "There are other ways to raise coronavirus awareness than partnering with the Trump administration."

The campaign had already been plagued by scheduling snafus and lukewarm interest since it launched in August. Organizers pitched actors, singers and other performers to conduct voluntary interviews with senior health officials in the administration, including Medicaid chief Seema Verma. But some of the most prominent names held out instead for interviews with infectious-disease expert Anthony Fauci, whose jam-packed schedule and recent vocal cord surgery served as a bottleneck.

"It's been a total mess," said one person involved in the process, who described a rush to produce at least 20 public service announcements by Election Day, a time-intensive process that involves considerable scheduling, recording, editing and post-production work for each celebrity interview. "The team should have been recording one celebrity per day. Instead, they've been only recording one per week or, actually, less."

A central problem: The video firm recommended by HHS to execute the campaign has struggled to meet deadlines, retain staff and even find the contact information of celebrities to participate in the videos, said three people with knowledge of the operation and documents reviewed by POLITICO.

That firm, DD&T, is led by a filmmaker who had no prior experience making U.S. public health campaigns and is also the business partner of Caputo, the Trump loyalist who served as the health department's spokesperson before taking leave this month.

"They had no reason being the people working on this campaign," the person involved in the process added. "They did not have any connections to filming crews, companies or anything."

DD&T's owner, Den Tolmor, did not respond to requests for comment.

Democrats have been probing the campaign, charging that it was an effort steered by Trump appointees to help the president.

Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC), who's chairing the House Oversight Committee's select committee on the coronavirus, told POLITICO in a statement that he's "alarmed" by reports that the administration "is using taxpayer funds for what appears to be nothing more than a public relations campaign in the weeks before a presidential election."

"These reports also suggest that administration appointees are attempting to steer these contracts to their own business associates," Clyburn added.

DD&T is currently a subcontractor to Atlas Research, a firm hired by HHS in August for $15 million to begin executing the ad campaign. Atlas Research referred questions about the campaign to the HHS public affairs office, which defended the campaign's goals and pace.

"There is an urgent and ongoing need for public education about Covid-19 prevention and treatment," said HHS spokesman Mark Weber. "The timeline for developing messages and materials had everything to do with following the required steps for procuring contractor services. It had nothing to do with the election."

But inside the health department, there are grave concerns about the ad campaign, which Caputo has publicly said was personally "demanded" by Trump, and is being funded by $300 million abruptly taken from the Centers for Disease Control.

"There's a lack of clarity about why we are doing this campaign and using all this money," said an HHS official with knowledge of the campaign. "To me, it seems like a PR campaign, not a public health campaign."

A bumpy start

Shortly after Caputo helped transfer $300 million from the CDC to fund the new nationwide campaign to "defeat despair," planning efforts ramped up early in the summer. The health department awarded a $15 million contract to Atlas Research on Aug. 26, and a $250 million contract to the market research firm of Fors Marsh on Sept. 1. Fors Marsh has said that it won the contract by stressing its evidence-based approach to communications, and that it is cooperating with Democrats’ probes.

In August, campaign organizers began cultivating a wish list of several-dozen celebrities to match in nationwide commercials with Trump officials — including a starring role for Medicaid chief Verma, who is not a doctor but is a longtime adviser to Vice President Mike Pence.

Verma would have been matched for interviews with "preferred celebrities" like Joel, Swift, Timberlake, singer Lady Gaga and more than a half-dozen others, according to one planning document circulated inside the Health and Human Services department this month and obtained by POLITICO. Meanwhile, CDC Director Robert Redfield would have been paired with "preferred celebrities" like Joel and musician Garth Brooks, and officials like Fauci and Surgeon General Jerome Adams were also being paired with celebrity partners.



But two people involved in the project said that it was unclear which celebrities were actually approached. Aides within the health department also said some Trump officials may not have understood precisely how Caputo and his team intended to use them in the campaign. Meanwhile, the publicists for some celebrities on the wish list denied knowledge of the campaign — a representative for Joel said he was never asked to participate, for instance — and others did not respond to requests for comment.

Verma herself didn't know about any celebrities that were being matched up with her, said a person with knowledge of her conversations, adding that the extent of Verma's understanding of the campaign largely rested on a brief conversation with Caputo and schedulers' subsequent efforts to find open time on her calendar.

The Trump administration approached Dr. Oz, hoping that the well-known TV doctor could sit for an interview with Fauci as part of the campaign. A representative for Oz on Monday confirmed that HHS sought to arrange a conversation with Oz and Fauci but said there are no plans to do the interview. "Nothing ever progressed," the spokesperson said.

Weber, the HHS spokesperson, confirmed that officials such as Verma were approached to be part of the campaign and that Caputo "mentioned all sorts of celebrities" when planning the initiative.

"Michael Caputo had a vision for the campaign that would be accomplished with expertise from across the department," said Weber, the HHS spokesperson. "He talked with a lot of people inside and outside of government about how they might be able to participate."

Caputo allies help steer project

Caputo has been unable to personally execute his vision, having taken medical leave on Sept. 16. Several days earlier, POLITICO reported that his team had interfered with weekly CDC bulletins on the progress of the Covid-19 pandemic. In a subsequent Facebook Live video, Caputo accused government scientists of seeking to undermine Trump's re-election and warned of armed insurrection.

Caputo also vowed in the video that the ad campaign would not be stopped despite scrutiny from Democrats, the "conjugal media" and "leftist scientists" seeking to prevent the Trump administration from sharing good news. He also returned to a theme that he'd raised on episodes of a taxpayer-funded podcast that the health department launched this spring: that Americans' morale was flagging, and the ad campaign would help "bring America back."

"The President created the strongest economy in history in the United States, certainly in modern times, [and] he will do it again," Caputo said in a podcast episode on June 5. "But who is going to solve the despair that comes from this?"

Caputo, who last week announced that he was diagnosed with cancer, declined comment about his role in the ad campaign.

But while Caputo has been absent, much of the ad campaign's strategy, planning and coordination has continued to be driven by two people with close ties to him.

Tolmor — who was paying Caputo to handle his public relations before Caputo joined the health department in April, according to Caputo’s HHS ethics form — has overseen collecting the footage and preparing the PSAs. Two people involved in the process said that Tolmor and his small team at DD&T have been overwhelmed by the task, with staff coming on and leaving the project in a revolving door.

Meanwhile, Madeleine Hubbard, Caputo's assistant and a 2020 graduate from the University of Illinois, has also taken a hands-on role in shaping the multi-million-dollar public health campaign, according to three people with knowledge of the effort.

Hubbard — whose resume lists no prior experience in public health communications or video production — previously served as University of Illinois's campus president for conservative organization Turning Point USA, and she also interned for Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.) before joining the health department in June. Hubbard did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Weber, the HHS spokesperson, insisted that the 22-year-old Hubbard's role is focused on logistics.

"Madeleine Hubbard is a special assistant in ASPA and her primary [role] is scheduling," said Weber. "Madeleine does not decide content or strategy."

But career officials have raised concerns that Hubbard has repeatedly overstepped her role as a scheduler in seeking to steer the taxpayer-funded campaign, said two people with knowledge of those concerns. For instance, Hubbard drew up an outreach plan for one campaign this month that specified that she would personally help design billboards and select which outlets to target with advertisements.

Hubbard also traveled to New Jersey last week to supervise a video shoot with Lemmer, the Hasidic musician, as part of health officials’ ongoing effort to boost Covid-19 awareness in the hard-hit community of Orthodox Jews. Lemmer was featured in a remote conversation with Assistant Secretary of Health Brett Giroir, a political appointee who has served as the nation's "testing czar" for coronavirus. A representative for Lemmer did not respond to request for comment.

Weber, the HHS spokesperson, said that Hubbard was only helping coordinate the video shoot with Lemmer.

Quaid in the spotlight

One of the only successes of the campaign was booking Quaid, the star of "The Parent Trap" and a longtime presence in movies and television commercials — and the first celebrity to sit for a PSA recording after the video team recalibrated to find celebrities who seemed to be more attainable, said two people involved in the campaign.

Quaid, for instance, had given an interview to the Daily Beast in April where he appeared to praise Trump's handling of the virus outbreak. Quaid also had previously met Fauci and was interested in simultaneously interviewing him for his new podcast, "The Dennissance."

Quaid was filmed in California on Sept. 10, where he recorded an interview with Fauci for his podcast. After the recording, Quaid was prompted to answer additional questions that could be used for the PSA, such as what he'd learned from the conversation, according to documents reviewed by POLITICO.

Tolmor's team told Quaid that they were planning to use excerpts from his interview with Fauci for multiple short commercials. While Quaid's wide-ranging interview with Fauci included reflections on the harsh toll of coronavirus and the importance of vaccines, the actor's upbeat approach provided good fodder for potential advertisements, said one person involved in the process — exactly in line with the message that Caputo had once envisioned for the campaign.

"How much do you think all this finger-pointing has helped to get rid of this virus?" Quaid mused to Fauci in the interview recorded on Sept. 10 and shared on his podcast. "I wonder what it would have been like in a non-election year, that keeps going through my head."

"We as Americans, I know we're going to get through this. We're all going to be OK," Quaid added.

A representative for Quaid referred questions to an Instagram video that Quaid posted on Saturday night, where the actor vowed that his participation was solely to fight the pandemic, that he was “not paid one penny” and decried media coverage that he said was inaccurate.

"The interview and the PSA were about raising awareness of Covid-19 and what we can still do to prevent lives being lost to this terrible, terrible virus," Quaid said in the video. "It was about the importance of wearing a mask and social distancing and it was in no way political."

Quaid's representatives this week told the administration that the actor wanted to drop out of the PSA campaign, a request that HHS granted, according to two people with knowledge of the request. HHS declined to answer a question about whether Quaid had left the campaign.

Winans also recorded a video late on Friday night where she said her participation in the campaign was focused on public health. The gospel singer and Adams, the nation's surgeon general, sat for a virtual interview on Sept. 18 for the PSA campaign.

"This interview stresses how important it is for everyone to wear a mask, and it also gives us other instructions on how to get on the other side of this pandemic," Winans said in the video. "It was not political at all."

Winans' representatives did not respond to a request for comment.

Meanwhile, officials said that the health department is still seeking possible performers to appear in the PSAs or thinking of ways to reconceive the campaign – more than a month after launching the ambitious multi-million-dollar effort, and with only about a month left before Election Day.

Two officials said they regretted that so much funding had been set aside for what seemed to increasingly be a haphazard, flagging campaign.

"There are ways to inform the American people about the risks of coronavirus," said one HHS official. "This wasn't the way to do it."



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