The Trump administration’s more-than-$300-million “public advertising and awareness campaign” on the COVID-19 pandemic is floundering as A-list celebrities back away and staff at the Department of Health and Human Services express opposition, according to reporting by Politico.
The campaign—organized by former Trump campaign official Michael Caputo—was intended to “defeat despair” and bolster confidence in the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic. A central feature of the campaign would be video interviews between celebrities and administration officials, who would discuss the pandemic and the federal response.
To pull it off, Caputo and his team requisitioned $300 million that Congress had previously budgeted for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They also made a list of more than 30 big-name celebrities that they hoped to appear in the Health Department’s videos, including Taylor Swift, Justin Timberlake, Lady Gaga, Billy Joel, Britney Spears, Bruno Mars, Bon Jovi, and Madonna.
But the project has been plagued by missteps from an inexperienced team, disorganization, and tepid celebrity interest. So far, it has only managed to recruit Dennis Quaid, CeCe Winans, and Hasidic singer Shulem Lemmer. Quaid dropped out of the campaign this week.
The campaign was further thrown into question earlier this month when Caputo—whom Trump appointed as spokesperson for the HHS—announced a leave of absence.
Meanwhile, many current and former staff at the HHS are against the campaign, which many see as a public-relations bid to help Trump’s reelection.
Josh Peck, a former HHS official who oversaw the Obama administration’s advertising campaign for HealthCare.gov, noted to Politico earlier that: “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,” he added.
Others expressed frustration that the campaign was not relying on expertise within the HHS. Instead, the campaign contracted with a video firm run by a former business partner of Caputo. The firm has struggled to meet deadlines and retain staff, people involved with the campaign told Politico.
Still others at the HHS were upset that funds were being spent on a video campaign about the pandemic response rather than the pandemic response itself.
“This is a boondoggle,” an HHS official who requested anonymity to discuss a sensitive department project, told Politico. “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.”