HHS podcast raises fresh doubts about 'Operation Warp Speed'

Shouldn't the administration want to bolster public confidence in Operation Warp Speed? The latest HHS podcast appears likely to do the opposite.
Image: Dept of Health & Human Services
The Department of Health and Human Services building in Washington on April 5, 2009.Alex Brandon / AP file
By Steve Benen

It's been nearly three months since Donald Trump tapped Moncef Slaoui, a former chairman of vaccines at GlaxoSmithKline, to oversee an initiative the White House is calling Operation Warp Speed. The point of the endeavor, of course, is to quickly develop a coronavirus vaccine.

The president's choice was not without controversy: Slaoui clearly has a relevant background in the field, but he's also heavily invested in the pharmaceutical giant where he worked for decades. The administration labeled him a voluntary contractor, exempting him from disclosure rules that would ordinarily apply to executive-branch officials.

Last week, Slaoui participated in the official podcast of the Department of Health and Human Services, speaking with Michael Caputo, HHS assistant secretary of public affairs, about Operation Warp Speed. As BuzzFeed noted, those expecting a narrow discussion about vaccine research instead heard the two complain bitterly about news coverage.

The chief adviser to Operation Warp Speed, the Trump administration's program investing billions of dollars into discovering a coronavirus vaccine, says media scrutiny of his stock ownership may delay a vaccine or make its discovery less likely because it is distracting him from his work.... After introductions, the podcast interview pivoted to the media's treatment of Slaoui. Caputo said that by joining Operation Warp Speed, Slaoui put a target on his back. Slaoui agreed and said he was naive. He said the media attention has distracted him and hurt the development of a vaccine.

Slaoui, who really hasn't generated that much media coverage, said he's "being attacked" in such a way that "decreases our chances or the speed with which we try to help humanity and the country resolve and address this issue." He added that he believes news organizations' only goal is "to distort information in a way that allows them to shape an opinion."

Caputo -- a notorious Republican political operative and a Roger Stone protégé, who had no meaningful background in health care before taking a leadership role at HHS -- said during the interview, "The American people need to understand that the media often times are lying to them because they don't want a vaccine, in order to defeat Donald Trump." He added, "I'm convinced that the reporters don't want a vaccine, sir. They don't."

Caputo went on to share a theory in which news organizations are trying to force Slaoui to resign in order to derail the vaccine initiative.

Remember, this was an official government podcast, featuring two key officials, not a private chat between a couple of largely unknown conservatives.

Shouldn't the administration want to bolster public confidence in Operation Warp Speed? Antics like these appear likely to do the opposite.