‘Totally Under Control’ shows how Trump administration didn’t follow its own playbook on tackling COVID

President Trump told Americans in late January that the government was ready for coronavirus. In an interview with CNBC, on the day Seattle recorded the first U.S. case of COVID-19, Trump said, “We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China And we have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.” 

Now 220,000 Americans have died from COVID-19. More than 8 million have been infected. Cases and hospitalizations are spiking again just before the holidays. 

Oscar-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney (“Agents of Chaos”) looked at why the U.S. — the wealthiest, most developed nation and home to some of the world’s leading infectious disease experts — failed so stunningly. He’s out with a new documentary called “Totally Under Control.” 

Gibney tells Press Play that he indeed is sending a message to voters: “The Trump administration failed miserably and honestly betrayed the country.” 

He says if people come to this film — and “Agents of Chaos” — with an honest and fair mindset, they’ll be alarmed by Trump’s response to the pandemic, whether they’re for or against Trump. 

He also hopes the film will help less politically engaged people realize the existential moment the U.S. is in and the importance of voting. 

“We made it as a film about competence, not as a film that was meant to serve the interests of any political party,” he says. 

Gibney says the U.S. actually had its own playbook for coronavirus, which the Obama administration rigorously developed based on previous epidemics. It was passed onto the Trump administration.

“But then even more intriguing, the Trump administration had conducted a kind of vigorous pandemic exercise with its key pandemic officials … and put out a report in October 2019, just before the pandemic hits here, that amounted to a very complete playbook of what to do right and what mistakes to avoid. They had it all there,” he says. “But they never took it off the shelf. They didn’t implement any of the playbook that they had so rigorously compiled.” 

Why didn’t they follow the strategies? “It was a combination of incompetence and also political opportunism, that the Trump administration didn’t want to believe in COVID as a pandemic,” Gibney says. “Because if there was a pandemic, that meant people were going to get it. If you tested for it, it was going to reveal more and more cases. And that was going to upend the Trump administration's claim that all was well. Because after all, he was cruising, he thought, on the waves of a powerful economy to reelection.” 

He adds that the administration successfully tried hard to steer the Centers for Disease Control’s message in a way that comports with the White House’s political messaging. 

Toward the end of the film, Gibney highlights the supply chain issues with personal protective equipment (PPE) and talks to Max Kennedy, a volunteer on the task force that Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner convened. Kennedy reveals that during his time there (about a month or two), his team didn’t purchase a single mask. So what was the purpose of that task force? 

Gibney says that Kushner was allegedly going to step in as a big businessman and secure vital PPE for health care providers. “Then to discover that the task force doesn’t have any federal procurement associated with it. It’s composed of 10 volunteers with absolutely no industry relationships.”

He continues, “To the extent that PPE was obtained … Max Kennedy, who was the grandson of Robert F. Kennedy, would sometimes cut a deal. He wouldn't be allowed to pay for it through government procurement, but he would then pass that onto five chosen companies by the Trump administration. These companies would then have that material imported at taxpayer expense, and then were free to sell that material for whatever price they wanted. And at least 50% of that material could be sold in states that weren't even experiencing hotspots if the price was right. It could even be sold to foreign countries.”

Was there fallout from this? Gibney says there’s an investigation in the Senate. “But I think it was initially lost in the noise of a very clever about-face by the Trump administration, which was to blame the states for the problem that the federal government had created.”

Why didn't anyone in the administration say changing course was necessary, if only to save the economy because that’s what Trump was hoping to win reelection on? 

“This administration is possessed of magical thinking. … We did have an opportunity to contain it. … But the Trump administration was always behind. And yet it kept hoping that everything was going to go away. … If you have a hole in the roof and you keep insisting that it's never going to rain, and it keeps raining, the problem isn't in the roof. It's the owner of the house,” says Gibney. 

But what about Europe? It implemented aggressive contact tracing, at least in Germany, but the area is still having problems today. Gibney responds, “It's not that this is easy. But I think in terms of reckoning with a scale of how well or how badly was the response handled, if you look at the United States, which has … 4% of the world's population and 20% of the world's deaths, we're clearly on the wrong side.”

— Written by Amy Ta, produced by Michell Eloy