The Department of Health and Human Services is shelling out an astonishing $300 million for an ad campaign putting a positive spin on COVID-19, Politico reported. It’s reportedly the brainchild of a controversial HHS official who stepped aside last week after warning supporters of President Donald Trump to buy ammo before the election.
The “defeat despair” ad blitz reportedly plays down the dire consequences of the pandemic and touts Trump’s low-key efforts against COVID-19 even as the U.S. death toll rockets past 200,000, sources told Politico.
The “public awareness” campaign is conveniently set to begin airing before the November election and features HHS officials and Trump-supporting celebrities, such as actor Dennis Quaid and country singer Garth Brooks, Politico reported.
The ad blitz was largely organized by controversial former HHS spokesperson Michael Caputo, Politico reported. He said in a recent Facebook video that the ad campaign was “demanded of me by the president of the United States. Personally.”
Caputo took a medical leave last week after a series of troubling comments in his 26-minute Facebook Live video, and announced Thursday that he had been diagnosed with cancer.
Caputo, who has no medical or scientific background, came under fire earlier this month after Politico first revealed that he and his communications team had harassed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to make their COVID-19 reports more optimistic to bring them in line with the president’s statements. Trump himself, however, has admitted he has lied to sugarcoat the disease fallout — so Caputo was pressing scientists to falsify their findings with a positive spin.
Caputo accused CDC scientists in his Facebook video of “sedition” for plotting against Trump with their bad news about the pandemic.
The ad blitz appears to be promoting the same false sense of security amid the pandemic.
Democrats have called for an investigation into the project.
“We have grave concerns that, rather than focus on planning and executing a national strategy to contain the coronavirus, the Trump Administration is using a quarter of a billion dollars in taxpayer money to fund what appears to be a political propaganda campaign just ... before a presidential election,” said a letter to HHS Secretary Alex Azar earlier this month from House leaders.
According to the letter, the contract’s “performance work statement” reportedly states that a goal of the contract is to “defeat despair and inspire hope, sharing best practices for businesses to operate in the new normal and instill confidence to return to work and restart the economy.”
Sources complained to Politico that some of the money is being pulled from agencies like the CDC that need the funds to help fight COVID-19.
“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?” an incredulous Josh Peck, a former HHS official who oversaw the Obama administration’s advertising campaign for HealthCare.gov, told Politico.
An HHS spokesperson has defended the campaign and insisted it won’t be co-opted by partisan politics. “There is no room for political spin in the messages,” Mark Weber told Politico.
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This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.