After more than nine months of dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, it’s blatantly obvious that the Trump administration has grossly mishandled the U.S. response — and with earth-shattering consequences. Unlike other countries that have kept the pandemic under control with an aggressive, early response, the federal government has failed to put in place measures like widespread and accessible COVID-19 testing or contact tracing, instead relegating public health matters to state governments.
And as Trump continues to downplay the virus, he has also known since January just how detrimental it would be if the country didn’t have a handle on it. For most of this year, individuals have had to navigate life during a global public health crisis with little guidance from the White House, grappling with how to keep ourselves and others alive, at the helm of a president who refused to do even the bare minimum of wearing a mask on a regular basis.
But amid the chaos and uncertainty over our leadership and what would happen, documentarian Alex Gibney, along with Suzanne Hillinger and Ophelia Harutyunyan, have been behind the scenes of the White House documenting Trump’s COVID-19 response plan since January. Gibney’s Totally Under Control, which is available to stream on October 20, documents the Trump administration’s slow reaction to the pandemic — starting from when scientists first learned of the virus in December 2019 — and how Trump-appointed leadership undermined any effective pandemic response.
The documentary uses both archival footage and interviews with whistleblowers, medical experts, and frontline doctors to paint a picture as to why the U.S. response was so disastrous, particularly as Trump hoped to sweep COVID-19 under the rug as his re-election campaign was underway.
According to immunologist Rick Bright, who was interviewed in the film, “The challenge has always been who’s in charge.” And in this case, the Trump-nominated Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services, Dr. Bob Kadlek cut spending on infectious diseases, downplayed the dangers of a pandemic, and “eliminated a program to manufacture N95 masks,” after he was appointed in 2017. On January 18 of this year, Bright said he asked to convene a disaster leadership meeting, to which Kadlek responded there wasn’t a “sense of urgency.”
Meanwhile, when the first COVID-19 case was reported in the U.S. in Washington State, researcher Dr. Eva Lee, estimated that nearly 2,000 people should have been tested in connection to that initial case to get a sense of its spread.
“This is not something that just happened, that had to be this way," said Gibney. "We could have contained this. So much of the damage and so many of the deaths could have been prevented." And yet, scientists and medical experts struggled to convince political leaders to immediately get started on testing and vaccines.
But Totally Under Control examines how this happened — and it started much earlier than most people could even conceive. In 2016, following the Obama-era H1N1 and Ebola outbreaks, a National Security Council office that focused on pandemics drafted a 69-page guide to dealing with a pandemic for the White House to get ahead of a future outbreak. But Trump tossed out the Obama-era playbook and commissioned his own guidelines before going on to completely disband the global health security and biodefense council in 2018.
“Biological threats are not always the thing that’s top of mind for a senior leader,” said Beth Cameron, who directed the program until its dissolution. “But there really was a lot of pressure on all of the civil servants between Barack Obama and Donald Trump to explain why we need high-level officials who are looking at that issue all the time.”
It was the Trump administration’s “incompetence, corruption and denial in the face of this global pandemic” that led to the disaster we are living through right now, according to the film’s directors. For example, Trump’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention created a breakdown in testing developments that led to over 90% of public health labs coming up with tests that didn’t work. Within 24 hours of receiving the flawed CDC testing kits, medical experts had to pause their efforts due to guidelines under the Food and Drug Administration’s Emergency Use Authorization.
“While we were on pause, the anxiety level of our members just increased exponentially, day after day,” said Scott Becker, the CEO of the Association of Public Health Labs. “There was just more frustration, concern, and frankly sadness because we weren’t able to do our job.” Still, the president continued to downplay the virus and the suggested safety measures like lockdowns that could threaten the U.S. economy, and his re-election campaign as a result.
Ultimately, much of the information in Totally Under Control has been thoroughly reported on over the last year. But the film paints a comprehensive and grim picture of the internal bureaucratic failures that led to both delays and a botched pandemic response stemming from the halls of the Trump White House. And it's a warning to us all of what’s at stake in the case of a Trump second term.
What becomes clear from watching this film is that Trump's selection of unqualified medical leaders who were incapable of responding to the onset virus left us inevitably doomed — if it wasn't COVID-19, it could have been something else that drove our country into a pandemic. And it's clear now more than ever that his second term will continue to derail the country's health experts, undermine leadership, replace them with "yes men," and potentially drive us right into another pandemic all over again.