US vetted stars' politics to showcase Trump virus response

Full Screen
1 / 2

This photo combination shows from left: musician Christina Aguilera in Los Angeles, March 29, 2012, comedian George Lopez in Los Angeles, Dec. 25, 2012, and actor Jack Black in Las Vegas, April 25, 2012. Public relations firms hired by the Department of Health and Human Services vetted the political views of hundreds of celebrities, including Aguilera, Lopez, and Black, for a health education advertising campaign on the coronavirus outbreak. That's according to documents released Thursday by a House committee. (AP Photo)

WASHINGTON – Public relations firms hired by the Department of Health and Human Services vetted political views of hundreds of celebrities for a planned $250 million ad blitz aimed at portraying President Donald Trump's response to the coronavirus outbreak in a positive light, according to documents released Thursday by a House committee.

A political appointee at the department suggested creating a government-funded campaign to rival the World War II icon Rosie the Riveter, according to the documents, and taglines like “Helping the President will Help the Country.”

None of the celebrities agreed to participate — they may not have known they were being vetted — and the campaign has been put on hold.

Director Judd Apatow believes Trump “does not have the intellectual capacity to run as president,” according to a list of more than 200 celebrities compiled by one of the firms. Singer Christina Aguilera “is an Obama-supporting Democrat and a gay-rights supporting liberal,” the list says, and actor Jack Black is “known to be a classic Hollywood liberal.” A public service announcement by comedian George Lopez was “not moving forward due to previous concerns regarding his comments regarding the president,” according to the documents.

The names were among the spreadsheets, memos, notes and other documents from September and October released by the House Oversight and Reform Committee.

The firms’ vetting came as political appointees planned to spend more than $250 million on a confidence-building campaign surrounding the virus, which has killed more than 227,000 people in the United States and is a core issue in the presidential race between Trump and Democrat Joe Biden.

While government public health campaigns are routine, the ad blitz planned by HHS was mired from the start by involvement from department spokesman Michael Caputo, a fierce loyalist and friend of Trump with little experience in the field. In September, a spokesman for Caputo said he was taking a medical leave from HHS as he battled cancer.

Trump, a Republican, has repeatedly minimized the dangers of the coronavirus, even as the nation is in its third wave of infections, with tens of thousands of cases reported each day.