Trump admin planned a $300 million, celeb-packed, pro-Trump PSA campaign to re-spin the coronavirus crisis
Politico today is reporting that the Trump Administration was looking to spend $300 million on a taxpayer-funded, celebrity-packed coronavirus-reponse ad campaign with the theme “Helping the President will Help the Country.”
The effort was being led by U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Michael Caputo, a handpicked Trump loyalist who ended up announcing he was taking a leave of absence last month after drawing some unwelcome attention to his department. (See: “Trump Health Aide Pushes Bizarre Conspiracies and Warns of Armed Revolt,” per The New York Times on Sept. 14, followed by “U.S. health agency spokesman Caputo takes leave after Facebook rant,” per Reuters on Sept. 16. On Sept. 24, Caputo revealed he’d been diagnosed with cancer.)
The Politico story, written by Dan Diamond, is based on documents shared by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, and builds on some of Politico’s earlier reporting on how the Trump White House was seeking to spin or rebrand the coronavirus crisis. See, for instance, “HHS bids $250 million contract meant to ‘defeat despair and inspire hope’ on coronavirus,” from Aug. 30, in which Politico’s Daniel Lippman reported that Caputo’s team had solicited proposals from “a number of communications firms.”
Today’s larger $300 million figure seems to reflect the planned addition of what are referred to as potential “subcontractors,” such as WPP-owned PR powerhouse Burson Cohn & Wolfe, per Politico’s report. Some outlets today are sticking with the earlier $250 million figure, which reflects only what was earmarked for the planned lead comms-firm contract. In its official press release on the matter, the House Committee on Oversight and Reform also cites the earlier figure: “New Documents Show Administration Officials Tried to Use $250 Million Ad Campaign for Coronavirus to Help Trump’s Re-Election.”
Ad Age has reached out to BCW for comment on its purported involvement with the HHS campaign, and will update this post when we hear back. Politico reports that Caputo had personally pushed “the idea of framing the ad campaign around helping the president” and that he made that suggestion in a meeting with BCW. (BCW declined to comment to Politico.)
Today, Politico reports that ...
... contractors vetted at least 274 potential celebrity contributors for their stances on gay rights, gun control and the 2016 election before allowing them to participate in the campaign. ... Caputo ... also sought to overrule the career civil servants assigned to the campaign, directly urging contractors to rush production of ads with celebrities like Trump-supporting actor Antonio Sabato, Jr.
Antonio Sabato Jr. was among the celebrities who delivered rousing pro-Trump speeches at the 2016 Republican nominating convention in Cleveland, as Ad Age reported at the time.
Politico had this summer drawn attention to some of the celebrity names attached to the project (when less was known about its substance)—including actor Dennis Quaid and gospel singer CeCe Winans, who both withdrew once their potential participation became public. In today’s story, Politico shares an image taken from a subcontractor spreadsheet titled “PSA Celebrity Tracker,” which lists celebrities and their purported political inclinations as well as the status of campaign-participation requests. Actress Scarlett Johansson, for instance, has an “Additional Notes” cell that reads “Not a Trump supporter, but supporter Hillary Clinton,” and her “Status” reads “Pending Answer.” Robert Downey Jr. is listed as “Not a Trump supporter, identified as a conservative,” while his “Status” also reads “Pending Answer.”
It’s not clear from today’s revelations whether any of the celebrities approached had been briefed on the tone of the campaign—and it seems unlikely that the “Helping the President will Help the Country” theme, with its Soviet-era shades of prescribed collective loyalty to the supreme leader, would have been a draw. In a bizarre twist, Politico’s report today further notes that HHS “recommended that contractors hire one of Caputo’s business partners, Den Tolmor, to film the celebrity videos, although the Russian-born filmmaker had no prior experience with U.S. public health campaigns.”
In a “Why it matters” take on today’s revelations, Orion Rummler of Axios writes that “These are the latest documents that suggest the deep politicization of the Trump administration’s coronavirus response.”
It’s worth noting that although Politico trumpeted an exclusive on this story today, other outlets are giving the outlet a run for its money.
For instance, in addition to retweeting a link to the Politico report this morning, the House Oversight Committee’s official Twitter account also retweeted Pulitzer-winning Wall Street Journal reporter James V. Grimaldi, who promoted his own story on the “Helping the President” campaign that was published a mere 15 minutes after the Politico piece: