Azar says HHS reviewing $300M pandemic ad campaign amid scrutiny

Democratic lawmakers have accused the administration of raiding public health funds to launch a “propaganda” campaign weeks out from the presidential election. They say the money would be better served addressing personal protective equipment shortages or helping distribute an eventual coronavirus vaccine. On Thursday, lawmakers broadened their investigation to determine whether contracts are being steered to people with ties to HHS spokesperson Michael Caputo, who oversaw the campaign before taking medical leave last month.

Azar was making his first appearance before a congressional committee since February, and it came just hours after President Donald Trump announced he tested positive for the coronavirus. He repeatedly dodged questions from Democratic lawmakers, who failed to pin him down on allegations of political interference within various health agencies.

Azar also refused to directly answer whether Trump had asked health officials to slow down coronavirus testing, as the president claimed during a campaign rally this summer. White House officials later downplayed Trump’s comments.

“I will not discuss my interactions or conversations with the president,” Azar said.

Democratic lawmakers didn’t press the issue further. Other top administration health officials, including infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci, testified this summer that they were never asked to slow down testing.

Azar also dismissed reports that political appointees sought to alter and delay CDC guidance to avoid contradicting Trump’s rosier outlook on the pandemic. When pressed on the issue, Azar said he “did not support” statements from Caputo’s former scientific adviser Paul Alexander declaring that CDC must clear communications through him first.

However, POLITICO and other outlets reported that Trump appointees bypassed agency experts, including on controversial guidance on testing asymptomatic people that was later reversed following public uproar. Ultimately, Azar said, agency Director Robert Redfield has final say on what his agency publishes.

“At the end of the day, the CDC director must agree with it or it does not go out,” Azar said.