Comedian George Lopez was nixed because he had criticized the president. Singer Marc Anthony had insisted his work not be used for election purposes. And while actress Julianne Moore was marked down as “pending” she also was noted as a “Liberal Democrat, pro-choicer, LGBT rights supporter, gun control campaigner.”
In a bizarre twist on the Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic, House Democrats have released documents detailing a $250 million plan by political aides at the Health and Human Services to seek out celebrities to talk about COVID-19 – and it appears their politics mattered.
Such a campaign wouldn’t be unusual in a nationwide pandemic, and some government documents show one intention was to use credible sources to release public service announcements on masks, social distancing and vaccination The documents released by the Congress also don’t allege any wrongdoing by the celebrities.
But included in the mix is a government contractor’s list detailing the political leanings of 274 celebrities –including in some cases their position on gun legislation, abortion rights and same-sex marriage. The contractor that maintained the list, Atlas Research, did not respond to requests for comment.
That list – called the “PSA Celebrity Tracker” — along with notes following meetings with administration officials, raises serious questions about whether taxpayer money was being used to educate the public on a deadly virus or bolster President Donald Trump‘s re-election chances by voicing support for him.
Trump has falsely claimed since spring that the virus would suddenly disappear and has declined to wear a mask in public, eventually testing positive.
“Helping the President will Help the Country,” one contractor wrote down as a potential “theme” of the campaign after meeting with Michael Caputo, a Trump appointee and top communications official at the Department of Health and Human Services.
Other themes listed were “Keep America Well” and that COVID-19 was the “public health challenge of all time.”
Politico first reported on the potential $250 million proposal last August, obtaining a letter from the administration to a communications firms that stated the goal of the contract would be to “defeat despair and inspire hope” about the coronavirus pandemic.
An HHS spokesperson said Thursday that the program was undergoing a “strategic review.”
“The plan has always been to only use materials reviewed by a department-wide team of experts including scientists from CDC who will ensure the latest scientific information is used to provide important public health, therapeutic and vaccine information,” according to the HHS statement.
The list of celebrities doesn’t make clear the extent to which their political views factored into their potential involvement in the program. Actor John Krasinski, for example, was listed as a “maybe” with the note that the “team is checking with him; has some conservative political views.”
But other documents obtained by the House Oversight and Reform Committee suggest their political leanings did pose problems when it came to Lopez, a vocal supporter of Democrat Joe Biden and target of conservatives.
“George Lopez PSA – Not moving forward due to previous concerns regarding his comments regarding the President,” according to Sept. 29 meeting notes by contractor Atlas Research.
Any celebrities considering participation have since backed out of the campaign, according to Democratic investigators.
“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,” wrote House Democratic chairs Carolyn Maloney, Jim Clyburn and Raja Krishnamoorthi in an Oct. 28 letter to Health 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,” the House Democrats stated.
Ultimately, only three celebrities wound up sitting down for a videotaped interview: Actor Dennis Quaid, Gospel singer CeCe Winans, and singer Shulem Lemmer.
In an Instagram video, Quid said he taped an interview with Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, to raise awareness about the importance of wearing a mask and social distancing.
“It was in no way political,” Quid said on Instagram, blaming “cancel culture media” for the effort’s demise.
Winans has made similar comments that her involvement was not political.
Other celebrities couldn’t be immediately reached for comment. Moore’s publicist said he was not aware of the list but confirmed the actress is a Democrat who supports LGBTQ and abortion rights as well as gun safety legislation.
Caputo, the political appointee who led the effort as a top communications official at HHS, is on temporary leave from the government, citing health reasons.
At the time the contract was issued, Caputo denied the program was aimed at giving Trump a political boost: “This project is about public health, not politics, and America deserves no less.”