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Documents Reveal WH Officials Tried to Use $250 Million in Taxpayer Money on Covid Ad Campaign to Boost Trump Reelection

Democrats on the House Oversight Committee accused HHS officials of engaging in a "cover-up to conceal the Trump administration's misuse of hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars for partisan political purposes."

Former Trump campaign aide Michael Caputo arrives to testify before the House Intelligence Committee during a closed-door session at the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center July 14, 2017 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

New documents released Thursday by Democrats on the House Oversight Committee reveal that Trump administration officials explicitly attempted to use a $250 million taxpayer-funded "public advertising and awareness campaign" to put a rosy spin on President Donald Trump's disastrous coronavirus response and boost his effort to win reelection.

In early September, the Department of Health and Human Services doled out a lucrative contract to the Washington, D.C. consultancy firm Fors Marsh Group to help the administration with an ad blitz framed as an attempt to "defeat despair and inspire hope" in the fight against the coronavirus, which has killed more than 227,000 Americans on Trump's watch.

"It is completely inappropriate to frame a taxpayer-funded ad campaign around 'helping' President Trump in the weeks and days before the election."
—Reps. Carolyn Maloney, Jim Clyburn, and Raja Krishnamoorthi
Initial reports on the massive pre-election ad campaign—which has not yet gone live—immediately drew suspicion from Democratic lawmakers, particularly given that it was pushed and coordinated by Michael Caputo, a scandal-plagued HHS communications official who previously worked on Trump's 2016 campaign.

Days after the $250 million contract was awarded to Fors Marsh Group, House Oversight Committee Democrats launched an investigation into the ad campaign and demanded that HHS turn over documents and communications related to the effort.

When HHS persistently refused to cooperate, the lawmakers turned to the contractors and subcontractors involved in the effort and obtained documents showing that Caputo openly framed the ad blitz as effort to boost the president, whose disastrous response to the pandemic led to between 130,000 and 210,000 preventable Covid-19 deaths, according to one estimate.

In one messaging document (pdf) obtained by the Oversight Committee, Caputo pitched "Helping the President Will Help the Country" as a tagline for the ad campaign.

"Of course, it is completely inappropriate to frame a taxpayer-funded ad campaign around 'helping' President Trump in the weeks and days before the election," Reps. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), and Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.) wrote in a letter (pdf) Thursday to HHS Secretary Alex Azar. "This theme also ignores the reality that more than 220,000 Americans have died from coronavirus—a fact that should not be whitewashed in a legitimate public health message."

Additional documents (pdf) obtained by the Oversight Committee show that Trump officials instructed contractors to vet the political views of celebrities being considered for roles in the public ad campaign, including their past statements on Trump.

"The Trump administration and its contractors criticized celebrities who support gay rights, same-sex marriage, and other positions they characterize as part of the 'liberal left,'" the House Democrats wrote Thursday. "As of October 1, 2020, all celebrities who had agreed to participate in the PSA campaign have withdrawn their consent to do so."

A spokesperson for HHS told Politico Thursday that the ad campaign is currently under review and said Azar was unaware of Caputo's involvement with the public relations effort.

In their letter to Azar, the trio of House Democrats wrote that "your failure to provide the documents we requested—especially in light of the information we have learned from the contractors—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 ahead of the upcoming election, and to direct taxpayer funds to friends and allies of Trump administration officials."

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