The Trump administration has discontinued a $250 million advertising campaign aimed at promoting COVID-19 vaccinations that included a plan to offer Santa Claus performers early access to a vaccine in exchange for their help convincing the public to get vaccinated.
The Wall Street Journal reported Sunday that, according to audio recordings of discussion of the plan, the deal would have been available to Mrs. Claus and elf performers, too. The idea was conceived by embattled Health and Human Services assistant secretary Michael Caputo prior to his leave of absence after a public meltdown last month in which he accused CDC scientists of sabotaging the Trump administration’s pandemic response. The Journal says HHS secretary Alex Azar has denied any knowledge of the scheme, which Caputo set up with Rick Erwin, the chairman of the Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas. (Erwin had pushed for early vaccinations for Claus and elf performers during an HHS advisory meeting in August.) Per the report:
[Erwin] called the news “extremely disappointing,” adding: “This was our greatest hope for Christmas 2020, and now it looks like it won’t happen.”
Erwin recorded his call with Caputo and provided it to the Journal, and for anyone who enjoys weird and whacky Trump-official conversations, let’s just say that Christmas has come early:
CAPUTO: If you and your colleagues are not essential workers, I don’t know what is.
ERWIN: HO HO HO HO HO HO HO — I love you!
After Caputo offered the quid pro quo, Erwin responded, “Since you would be doing Santa a serious favor, Santa would definitely reciprocate.” Here is the transcript of them discussing the details:
CAPUTO: We are in partnership with many organizations, and we’re getting in more every day. If we got into a partnership with you and your colleagues, we can do something where we employ, you know, you go to your colleagues who are in the different cities where we’re having events, and have them help. And when the vaccine is available, [you] get vaccinated first.
ERWIN: You set up a station in Southern California and I’ll put 50 Santas in full costume in front of the cameras. And you let me know what other cities you’re operating in and I’ll send Santas there.
CAPUTO: 10 to 35 …
ERWIN: My friend —
CAPUTO: Between 10 to 35 cities.
ERWIN: We would pull this sleigh uphill ourselves if we have to.
CAPTUO: Alright! Okay, I’m in Santa, if you’re in.
ERWIN: I’m in! I’m 100 percent in! I’m in like Elvin!
According to the Journal, Caputo also told Erwin, “I cannot wait to tell the president,” later adding, “He’s going to love this.”
Of course, it’s perfectly understandable why Erwin is disappointed. Who wouldn’t make a deal for early access to a COVID-19 vaccine, especially when your livelihood depends on it:
Without a vaccine, the Santa group’s Mr. Erwin said, he plans to cancel all but one socially distant Christmas booking this year. Mr. Erwin—whose Facebook page includes posts critical of President Trump and his handling of the pandemic—said his members are discussing ways to do their work with virtual visits, plexiglass and photo opportunities with a Santa trapped in a Covid-safe snow globe.
He said nearly 100 Santas had volunteered for the HHS assignment, adding that agency officials had said they would finalize the plan to use the Santas in mid-September.
“They may have been fibbing a little bit to Santa,” Mr. Erwin said.
On the other hand, Caputo’s bungled $250 million awareness campaign deserves all the scrutiny it has gotten. Democratic lawmakers have criticized the scheme as a propaganda effort designed to help the president get reelected. HHS officials have continued to claim that there was no political motive behind the plan, but that’s difficult to fathom. Caputo, the Trump-appointed political operative who spearheaded the idea, has repeatedly worked to hamper, block, or change official CDC infectious-disease reports so they didn’t contradict the misinformation President Trump has disseminated during the pandemic. Such a figure should never have been in a position to determine what was naughty or nice; as with scientific guidance on the coronavirus, that should be left to the professionals.