The health department’s $300 million-plus, taxpayer-funded vehicle to boost confidence in President Donald Trump’s response to the pandemic is sputtering. Celebrities are refusing to participate, and staff are arraying against it. Some complain of the unstated aim of helping Trump’s re-election. Others point to an ill-prepared video team and a 22-year-old political appointee who has repeatedly asserted control despite having no public health expertise, according to six people with close knowledge of the campaign and documents related to its operations.

Interviews with participants and others in the Health and Human Services Department paint a picture of a chaotic effort, scrambling to meet an unofficial Election Day deadline, floundering in the wake of the medical leave of its architect, Michael Caputo, and running up against increasing resistance among career staff.

“This is a boondoggle,” said an HHS official who requested anonymity to discuss a sensitive department project. “We’re in the middle of a pandemic … we could use that quarter of a billion dollars on buying PPE [personal protective equipment], not promoting PSAs with C-list celebrities.”