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Trump administration's 'defeat despair' contract faces new questions

"CDC hasn't yet done an awareness campaign about Covid guidelines -- but they are going to pay for a campaign about how to get rid of our despair?"
Image: Dept of Health & Human Services
The Department of Health and Human Services building in Washington on April 5, 2009.Alex Brandon / AP file

It was nearly a month ago when Politico first reported on a curious contract from the Department of Health and Human Services. The idea, evidently, was to spend $250 million -- in public funds -- to "defeat despair and inspire hope" about the coronavirus pandemic.

To be sure, many of HHS's communications contracts are common and uncontroversial. When the cabinet agency promotes information related to public health, for example, it's obviously a legitimate use of resources.

But a quarter of a billion dollars -- during an election season -- to combat "despair" about a deadly crisis is altogether different. Indeed, congressional Dems quickly announced plans to investigate the contract for obvious reasons: it appeared to be a political effort to make Americans feel better about an ongoing catastrophe, as if an elusive recovery were somehow underway.

Nevertheless, Politico has run a follow-up report, highlighting the fact that the Trump administration is moving forward anyway with the "highly unusual advertising campaign."

The ad blitz, described in some budget documents as the "Covid-19 immediate surge public advertising and awareness campaign," is expected to lean heavily on video interviews between administration officials and celebrities, who will discuss aspects of the coronavirus outbreak and address the Trump administration's response to the crisis, according to six individuals with knowledge of the campaign who described its workings to POLITICO.

The plan, the article added, is to "start airing" the message "before Election Day."

You don't say.

The project was apparently launched by Michael Caputo, a notorious Republican political operative and a Roger Stone protégé, whom the White House tapped to serve in a leadership role at the Department of Health and Human Services. The fact that Caputo had no meaningful background in health care or science apparently didn't matter to Team Trump.

While peddling some truly unhinged conspiracy theories, Caputo recently boasted that Donald Trump "personally" put him in charge of this anti-despair initiative. Soon after, however, Caputo took a leave of absence and disclosed a serious health condition for which he's receiving treatment.

But his campaign is apparently moving forward anyway, and Politico's report suggests officials at the agency aren't pleased.

[Ten] current and former health officials told POLITICO that they have concerns about the campaign's scope, goals and even how it has been funded -- by pulling money out of health agencies like the Centers for Disease Control that are in the midst of fighting the pandemic, rather than working with lawmakers to set up a brand-new advertising effort with congressional oversight, or drawing on substantial internal resources and expertise in running health-related public service campaigns.

Josh Peck, a former HHS official who oversaw the Obama administration's advertising campaign for HealthCare.gov, was quoted saying, "CDC hasn't yet done an awareness campaign about Covid guidelines -- but they are going to pay for a campaign about how to get rid of our despair? Run by political appointees in the press shop? Right before an election? It's like every red flag I could dream of."

Coming soon to a television screen near you.