Shaheen Requests Review of Trump Administration Decision to Spend $250 Million of Emergency COVID-19 Funding on Ad Campaign to “Defeat Despair”

September 23, 2020

During a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing last week, Shaheen sounded the alarm on this public relations operation that is designed to coincide with the President’s re-election campaign & took away from funds that could be used to combat the virus.

(Washington, DC) – U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) led a letter yesterday with Senators Patty Murray (D-WA) and Angus King (I-ME), requesting that the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) conduct a review of requests for proposals, contract bids and other materials relating to the public relations campaign contract solicited by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to “defeat despair and inspire hope” about the coronavirus or COVID-19 pandemic. Press reporting indicates that HHS is funding a massive $250 million public relations and advertising effort that happens to coincide with the President’s re-election campaign. The ad campaign was not authorized, nor was funding appropriated, by Congress.

The Senators wrote, “Congress did not authorize or appropriate funding for this public relations campaign, and we are deeply concerned that resources used to finance it are being pulled away from essential pandemic response efforts at the Department.”

The Senators went on to cite Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Dr. Robert Redfield’s testimony last week before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies – of which Shaheen serves – that the agency was directed to transfer $300 million from its emergency COVID-19 funding to support the public relations campaign. Redfield emphasized the urgent need for additional funding to support COVID-19 vaccine distribution, making the transfer of CDC funding for this public relations campaign even more alarming.

The Senators continued, “Press reporting on this public relations campaign indicates that the “performance work statement” for the contract and materials from HHS suggest that the majority of the $250 million for the campaign should be spent by the end of the calendar year, which raises concerns about potential alignment with President Trump’s re-election campaign. According to Dr. Redfield’s testimony, CDC was not involved in the selection of the award and has not contributed to the development of the messaging for the campaign. It is unclear whether there will be any scientific and public health-focused review of the information included in the messages that are disseminated to the public, either at the agency-level or by an independent, nonpartisan group of experts. We believe it is vital to ensure that all of the information about this pandemic that is conveyed to the public is accurate and based on the best available science and evidence.”

Shaheen, Murray and King closed their letter with a series of questions for the GAO to address about the public relations campaign, the administration’s actions and public service announcements and ongoing communications with the public regarding the COVID-19 crisis.

The letter can be read in full here.

In the Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing referenced above, Shaheen questioned top administration officials on this public relations campaign and underscored how urgently this type of funding is needed in New Hampshire and across the country to respond to the pandemic – not fund a public relations campaign.