The House Oversight Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney, Jim Clyburn, the chairman of the select committee on coronavirus and Raja Krishnamoorthi, a subcommittee chairman, sent letters to both Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Ben Garthwaite, the chief executive officer for Fors Marsh Group, the market research firm that ultimately got the contract.
“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 two months before a presidential election,” House Democrats wrote in their letters.
Democrats also wrote “to address the despair many Americans are experiencing during this pandemic, the Administration needs to be honest about the risks Americans face and promote science-based solutions –not political spin — to finally contain the virus and prevent more unnecessary infections and deaths.”
“The public relations firm hired by HHS will report to Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Michael Caputo, who is a former campaign operative for President Trump and not a public health professional,” the letters say.
“I wanted to always play it down,” Trump told Woodward on March 19, even as he had declared a national emergency over the virus days earlier. “I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”
It’s not unprecedented for an administration to use a marketing or public relations firm to help craft a message or conduct research about public health. Fors Marsh lists on its websites several previous campaigns it worked on with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the Food and Drug Administration on issues related to childhood asthma and rural health habits. And when former President Barack Obama was trying to educate and sell Americans on the Affordable Care Act, the administration spent millions on advertising to get people to sign up.
Still, House Democrats are requesting that the contract between Health and Human Services and Fors Marsh be suspended until they receive documents including the “complete and unredacted” contract “and all documents and communications referring or relating to the contract award process.” Democrats also want to receive assurances that no ad campaign will include overtly political messages.
The committee is also asking for a staff briefing by September 28.