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White House officials considered Elon Musk for coronavirus ad campaign

White House officials considered Elon Musk for coronavirus ad campaign


The Tesla CEO was among 250 people sought for an ad campaign to ‘help’ the president

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Photo by Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Elon Musk was among the celebrities that Trump administration officials tried to woo for a “Helping the President will Help the Country” taxpayer-funded ad blitz that never got off the ground, according to documents released by the House Oversight Committee.

The $300 million campaign was pitched as a way to “defeat despair and inspire hope” over the coronavirus. “We must film them ASAP — we need content in the can now,” one official wrote in an email to contractors who worked on the ad campaign on September 13th.

Like many of the more than 250 celebrities screened, Musk’s status on the “Celebrity Participant Status Chart,” first reported by Politico, shows as “pending answer.” An additional note by the Tesla and SpaceX CEO’s name reads that Musk “stated in 2018 that he was a ‘registered independent’ and classifies himself as ‘half Democrat, half Republican.’”

It’s an apparent reference to a 2018 tweet from Musk in which he said he was “not a conservative. Am registered independent & politically moderate. Doesn’t mean I’m moderate about all issues. Humanitarian issues are extremely important to me & I don’t understand why they are not important to everyone.”

Only ten of the celebrities received final approval by the administration, and all have since backed out of the campaign, according to a news release from House Oversight and Reform Committee chairwoman Carolyn B. Maloney (D-NY).

Earlier in the pandemic, Musk expressed skepticism about the coronavirus, calling shelter-in-place orders “fascist,” spreading discredited reports about the virus, questioning information about its spread, and at one point saying panic over the virus — which has killed more than 1.1 million people worldwide— was “dumb.” But Musk has publicly disagreed with the president’s positions, if not directly with Trump himself. He stepped down from two advisory councils to the president, after Trump announced the US would withdraw from the Paris climate agreement.

The collection of celebrities the White House planned to pursue for the ad campaign is a weird list that ranges from Silicon Valley to Hollywood, with actors, singers, and other performers mentioned. It’s not clear what phase most of the discussions reached.

The list includes Sean Penn and Jay-Z (both listed as “maybes,”) Instagram celebrity Josh Ostrovsky aka The Fat Jewish (“pending answer”); reality show stars Chip and Joanna Gaines (“pending answer”) to appeal to faith-based voters; Beyoncé (“pending answer”) to appeal to “Black Americans and superspreaders”; and Cardi B (“pending answer”), who the list notes has already endorsed Biden for president. Podcast host Joe Rogan, who has said he would vote for President Trump’s reelection, is listed as “overcommitted” but with a “maybe” status.

The reasons for rejection from the list included past criticism for President Trump — Judd Apatow “believes Trump does not have the intellectual capacity to run as President,” Billie Eilish is “not a Trump Supporter, stated he is ‘destroying our country and everything we care about’”; and Bryan Cranston “called out Trump’s attacks on journalists.”

Others were rejected for their stances on “liberal left” issues like same-sex marriage. According to the chart, singer Christina Aguilera “is an Obama-supporting Democrat and a gay-rights supporting liberal,” Justin Timberlake “publicly endorsed Obama and supports gay marriage,” and George Takei is a “vocal political activist including immigration and the federal government’s decisions to detain migrants at facilities.”

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar has since ordered a review of the campaign. House Democrats including Maloney; James Clyburn (D-SC), chairman of the select subcommittee on the coronavirus crisis; and Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL), chairman of the subcommittee on economic and consumer policy, wrote in a letter to Azar Wednesday that the Trump administration had failed to produce requested documents for a probe into the matter.

“Your failure to provide the documents we requested—especially in light of the information we have learned from the contractors—appears to be part of a cover-up to conceal the Trump Administration’s misuse of hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars for partisan political purposes ahead of the upcoming election, and to direct taxpayer funds to friends and allies of Trump Administration officials,” the letter to Azar reads.