They Made a Top-Secret Film Exposing Trump’s COVID Cover-Up. Then He Got COVID.
The filmmakers of “Totally Under Control” open up about their eye-opening documentary that was shot in secret over the past five months, Trump contracting COVID, and much more.
Totally Under Control, the new documentary directed by Alex Gibney (Going Clear), Ophelia Harutyunyan, and Suzanne Hillinger, and written by Gibney, tracks our last eight months of pandemic hell. What the film confirms, through a careful examination of the facts and interviews with public health experts and civil servants, is that Donald Trump and his administration strategically endangered the majority of Americans and U.S. residents by downplaying the threat while actively discouraging protective measures like mask-wearing. And not only that, but Trump and co. created the conditions for failure by rejecting the government—including a pandemic plan and resources supplied by the outgoing Obama administration—in favor of business deals fashioned for personal gain rather than public benefit.
When Kayleigh McEnany held two thick pandemic plan binders apparently fashioned by the Trump administration, comparing them to what she saw as a thin packet provided from the Obama administration, she encapsulated the theater that defines Trumpism and the Republican Party in general. Pomp and circumstance overrides good sense and care; it’s more important to get your supporters to believe you’ve got it handled rather than to actually get a handle on anything.
Now that Trump, McEnany, immigrant-kidnapper-in-chief Stephen Miller, and several other Trump associates have contracted COVID-19 themselves (just days after Hillinger, Harutyunyan, and Gibney finished their film), the chaos has finally come back around. Yet, as Gibney pointed out, these officials all have access to the best health care this country has to offer; the rest of us who fall ill will end up on the phone with insurance companies fighting for bill adjustments at best, or languishing without medical care at all, at worst. All the while, Trump will continue his photo-ops, spinning the spectacle of his own illness for whatever political gain he can muster and, again, for no one else’s benefit—not even those who continue to support him with a wild fervor.
The Daily Beast spoke to the directors about the difference between negligence and purposeful destruction, whether Woodward should’ve dropped those tapes when he recorded them, the state of whistleblowing in the U.S., and Totally Under Control, which comes out on demand Oct. 13 and on Hulu Oct. 20.
The film focuses on this idea of negligence, but also touches on several instances in which Trump and his administration gain financially from his negligent approach to the pandemic. Was that something that you were thinking about—that perhaps this reaches beyond fumbling or negligence?
Alex Gibney: I think you’re describing our process. The question early on was, Was it a fumble? Was it just an administration caught unprepared and unaware? Was it the thinning out of the federal government that Trump engaged in? But what we discovered over time—particularly with things like the handoff of the playbook from the Obama administration; the cruise; and the contagion exercise, which was published just a few months before the actual pandemic and contains all the information you would need to handle it; then the way that the whole testing episode was so mishandled, coupled with the revelation that we got from Woodward—it seems much more intentional. [Obama HHS secretary] Kathleen Sebelius even says, "It occurred to me for the first time that we were intentionally slow-walking testing." And, you know, sometimes Trump is not mysterious about these things. He says, "Slow the testing down, please,” and “I want the numbers to go up, keep the cruise ship offshore.” It’s really a terrifying idea. Imagine if an oncologist operated that way, where you see a polyp and then decide, well, let’s just hang on and see if it goes away.
Ophelia Harutyunyan: And in the case of the Airbridge program, it did raise a lot of questions for us. There are senators—Senator Warren and others—who have opened an investigation and are looking into this as we speak. They’re asking for records from these companies to see how much they profited from being the companies arbitrarily chosen by the government, and that the Trump administration is working with to basically subsidize the shipping costs of bringing PPE in. So there are still obviously questions out there, whether there was an intentional kind of profiteering by the government or not. Hopefully those are questions that will be answered soon.
Speaking to the revelation from Bob Woodward that Trump knew all along that COVID-19 was serious and would spread, what are your thoughts on his saving that information for his book, which came out very late in the game?
Gibney: I don’t think it was appropriate. I’ve seen him say that people who believe in Trump were going to disregard any criticism of him anyway, so what’s the point—but I don’t quite see it that way. It seemed to me that in the middle of a pandemic—it was very early on, February 7th—when everyone was trying to grapple with what this virus represented and what its threat was, to reveal that the president knew how deadly it was would have been an important public service.
Harutyunyan: There are people who died from the misinformation, and if they heard early in February, people who maybe trusted president Trump back then, a tape where he says that the virus is “deadly” and “serious,” I do think that would have made a difference for sure.
The willingness of whistleblowers to come forward in speaking out against an administration that almost exclusively rewards loyalty was also at the center of the documentary. Yet, in the past several months, so many civil servants have feared losing their jobs upon speaking out. Are whistleblowers so lacking in protections that so many people lack faith in any sense of justice in this country, that even people with pretty cushy jobs are afraid to speak out?
Gibney: They were definitely concerned about coming forward and it took some persuading. That said, by the time we approached him, Rick Bright had already given congressional testimony and appeared briefly on 60 Minutes—and he was still concerned and nervous and part of the federal government. Max Kennedy, the former volunteer for the Jared Kushner-led PPE acquisition effort, was also concerned. He’s a 23-year-old kid, and he’s sticking his head above the parapet. But I think that in both cases, they felt their stories needed to be told because it showed from the inside what was really going on, which was so important with an administration that tries so desperately to hide what’s going on inside.
I will say though, one thing I’ve learned over time—and I started to learn this lesson when I made a film about Enron—is that we don’t really have very good whistleblower protections. And furthermore, as a society, we really don’t like whistleblowers that much. I can recall, when I was doing the Enron film, one of the two questions I got almost every time I appeared was, “Sharon Watkins,” the whistleblower of that story, “who does she think she is?” and “Why does she think she’s so great?” And I thought, of all the questions to ask about the Enron story with so many people who lost their jobs, this? There was so much economic chaos and calamity that to wonder, “Who does that whistleblower think she is?” testifies that there’s something about whistleblowers that makes us uncomfortable. As if they’re showing us up and they’re snitching in some way—and I find that disturbing, and it would be refreshing if we could move from a cultural perspective to change that.
We’ve also, culturally as well, put so much faith in the executive branch. And a lot of what you’re establishing throughout the film is that you have to trust scientists in a pandemic situation and you get out of their way. Yet, in the U.S., We have a political system that is so built around the executive. I know that, for all of you, this was really about tracing the facts of the story and not necessarily about an obvious political angle, but did you ever reflect on our government and the way it works in the first place?
Suzanne Hillinger: What was so interesting is we started looking at who were political appointees and how much power they have. I think that’s something that through the lens of the story of the pandemic becomes really obvious. When you’re looking at the minutiae of everyday government, you don’t really see it, but when you find out that somebody like Alex Azar, who ran a pharmaceutical company for a very long time, is now in charge of HHS, overseeing the FDA and the CDC, you realize how much power he has, and you can’t help but think, where are his alliances? That is really illuminating to understanding our government and also looking at the CDC.
And to answer your question about whistleblowers: I think for so many people who work in public health, the CDC is the gold standard. People go to school and they get PhDs and they want to end up with the CDC because they can really help shape research and policy in this country. I think it’s particularly hard for career scientists in the CDC to come forward because they never imagined that this would be part of their job. They never imagined that the research and the messaging that they felt was so important to get out to the American people wouldn’t get out through the CDC. They’ve been put in a terrible position.
Do you see, with the many health-care workers who stood up to the government as well as their own employers in demanding PPE during this pandemic, a movement toward a different kind of approach for career scientists and health-care workers who typically have to be neutral because of who they deal with?
Gibney: One thing we discovered that, in terms of talking to doctors in the teeth of this pandemic, is that they felt hugely frustrated that they weren’t empowered to do their jobs properly. And that’s something I think was evident to them. And part of that was the Trump administration, but also part of that is a dysfunctional public health system that we have in this country, that I think people are realizing more and more needs to be fixed.
Hillinger: Something that was touched upon but that didn't make it into the film that I think is really important to understand is the way that funding is released to public health agencies across this country: It’s during some kind of emergency, like a pandemic, that they suddenly have the funds that are used, for example, to upgrade their computers so that their tracking programs can work really well. And I think that a big lesson has been learned through testing delays and lack of supplies and everything that we’ve discovered through this is that we need a different system to be able to make sure that our public health agencies can be prepared for whatever emergency comes our way so that we’re not reacting whenever there’s chaos, so that we’re prepared in advance. And I think that was something that a lot of medical professionals we spoke to were pretty willing to point out.
What were your thoughts when you first started to hear about Trump and all of his associates falling ill? And with that spectacle of Trump having his Secret Service, drive him out in front of his supporters at Walter Reed, and with the videos he’s been putting out, what does this next manifestation of his response look like to you?
Harutyunyan: He’s endangering people with the tweets he’s sending and the actions that he’s doing right now. I thought, “OK, now that he got the virus, maybe he will change his messaging. Maybe he will understand how serious this can be.” And it’s actually been quite the opposite—by pretending that everything is OK, he is putting so many people in danger because there are a lot of people who look up to him. These past two, three days I’ve just been watching the news and I can’t believe what I’m seeing, because I know that more people are going to die because of this.
Gibney: I think what we’ve been seeing as a spectacle is a metaphor for what we’ve been living through since January, which is the substitution of political theater for public safety. And he’s intentionally putting people at risk for the sake of political gain. There are a lot of politicians who are willing to sacrifice a lot in order to get elected or reelected, but when you see it this starkly where somebody who knows how deadly the virus is, and we know it by his own words, is willing to let people die in order to be able to safeguard his political future, it’s terrifying. But then you see it in a capsule form where in his Evita-like moment, he rips off his mask to tell his supporters, “You know, you were right to never wear masks,” and “I beat this virus. This is nothing,” knowing that he is a man of enormous privilege and gets the kind of treatment that no other American in the country can get—because he’s president of the United States and therefore doesn’t have to suffer the same kind of risk that others do, even though he’s putting them at risk. It was shocking.
Do you see any hope for a coordinated spot response beyond this administration that can work for people? Some have argued that even if it wasn’t Trump in power, we would have faced a lot of problems in this country with COVID-19 because most of our leaders don’t support single-payer or really any public health system that would support the vulnerable.
Harutyunyan: I can answer as a foreigner. It has been mind-boggling for me, the health-care system in this country. I still don’t understand. I think there are so many issues where I look at it and I can see clearly that so many other countries had solved this like years ago or decades ago and it is possible. And here, Americans are saying, “Oh, that’s not possible. Universal health care is not possible. A free education is not possible. Paid maternity leave and paternity leave are not possible.” But there are so many simple things that so many other countries have figured out. A lot of Americans have been convinced somehow that it is not possible. The whole insurance system, the way it works in America—there are deductibles and the deductibles are high and there’s still copay, and then there’s [coinsurance]. I mean, there’s so many [out-of-pocket expenses]. I’ve been in this country for eight years and I’m still confused about how it works. And sometimes when I get a bill and I look at how much it would cost me if I didn’t have insurance, I’m just like, there has to be a better way. And there is a better way.
That is the one thing that the Republican Party maybe has convinced people that, if you have universal health care, that’s socialism—but that’s just the basics. We don’t have to be a socialist country to have universal health care. Why can’t we offer that to people? And so I think there has to be a systemic change and we need to educate people about the possibilities of these things and how that is just the basics of living right now in the 21st century, that humans deserve to have good health care,
Gibney: And what most people don’t realize is we do have socialism in this country. It’s just limited for the wealthy and powerful. Everybody in Congress has a very good health plan.