The 9 biggest takeaways from 'Totally Under Control,' a new documentary filmed in secret about the Trump administration's coronavirus response

The 9 biggest takeaways from 'Totally Under Control,' a new documentary filmed in secret about the Trump administration's coronavirus response
Official poster for 'Totally Under Control,' a new documentary about the US government's response to the coronavirus pandemic.Courtesy of Neon
  • "Totally Under Control," a documentary about the US government's response to the coronavirus pandemic, is now streaming on Hulu.
  • It was filmed mostly in secret over five months and blasts the Trump administration for failing to contain the pandemic.
  • Here are nine key takeaways from the film.

Documentary directors Alex Gibney, Ophelia Harutyunyan, and Suzanne Hillinger finished their film about the US government's coronavirus response on October 1.

The next day, President Donald Trump announced he had the virus. The trailer for the documentary, called "Totally Under Control," dropped the same day. In its first 72 hours, it was viewed more than 6 million times. The film, which was made in relative secrecy over the past five months, began streaming on Hulu on Tuesday.

Its title is a reference to Trump's claim earlier this year that the coronavirus outbreak was under control, and the documentary focuses mainly on what Gibney has called the federal government's "staggering incompetence" in failing to slow the coronavirus' spread through the US.
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Although the trailer's timing with Trump's diagnosis may have been coincidental, its proximity to the election is not. In an interview with the New York Times, Gibney said he made the film partially "to have an impact — as in right now."
The 9 biggest takeaways from 'Totally Under Control,' a new documentary filmed in secret about the Trump administration's coronavirus response
President Trump holds a Make America Great Again campaign rally in Winston-Salem, NC United States on September 8, 2020Peter Zay/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

"There were a lot of people who felt that we should collect evidence but wait for a year or so," he added. "But in this case, it was important to put that story before the American public, at a time when they were making a critical choice about the future of the country."

Here are nine major takeaways from the film.
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In 2019, the government simulated a pandemic with 'eerie similarities' to the coronavirus

Dubbed "Crimson Contagion," the scenario involved a highly lethal influenza virus that originated in China and spread throughout the world. The Department of Health and Human Services conducted the scenario in 2019, from January to about August.

HHS detailed its results in October 2019, in a draft report that The New York Times later published. It found that the government lacked funding for personal protective equipment and antiviral drugs, that federal agencies were conflicted about how to manage the response, and that state governments received confusing messages about lockdowns and school closures. The report, in hindsight, read like a preview of the year to come.
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The Trump administration ignored advice about how to deal with a pandemic

In 2016, Beth Cameron, a senior director for global health security and biodefense at the National Security Council, and her team put together a 69-page briefing on how the federal government could coordinate its response to a pandemic.

The report was "intended to allow the people in the White House to ask questions," Cameron said in the film. "What should we do? And also, what do we need to do to get ahead, so that we're not constantly reacting?"

The Trump administration did not use the playbook, Cameron said. In 2018, national security adviser John Bolton disbanded the Global Health Security and Biodefense team.
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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell claimed at one point that the Obama administration "did not leave to this administration any kind of game plan for something like this." He later admitted he was wrong.

The US's first coronavirus tests were faulty, and the CDC didn't address the issue for 3 weeks

The 9 biggest takeaways from 'Totally Under Control,' a new documentary filmed in secret about the Trump administration's coronavirus response
The CDC's laboratory test kit for COVID-19.CDC/Associated Press

The original tests, which were shipped to laboratories on February 5, contained a faulty assay meant to measure the presence of a virus. Labs around the country notified the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of the problem, but the agency didn't address it until February 28.

In the meantime, universities and labs couldn't develop their own tests quickly, because they would have had to slog through weeks of Food and Drug Administration bureaucracy. So in February, the US conducted next to no tests.
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"It was as if we were flying blind, and we knew it. And frankly, there was nothing we could do except wait," Scott Becker, CEO of the Association of Public Health Laboratories, says in the film.

The White House's early testing strategy 'was designed to miss community transmission'

At the end of February, the US was testing fewer than 100 people a day, whereas South Korean officials were testing 10,000 people per day.

To make the best use of limited tests, the CDC restricted testing to people who'd traveled from China or had contact with people who'd tested positive. But this strategy assumed the US didn't already have community transmission —when a virus spreads through a community without a known source.
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By late February, the virus had already spread to half of all US states. By focusing only on people with known links to China, the CDC testing strategy "was designed to miss community transmission," Dr. Taison Bell, an infectious-disease specialist and critical-care physician at the University of Virginia, says in the film.

Trump officials sold most of the US's protective masks to China in February

In February, the Trump administration created the "CS China COVID Procurement Service" partly to encourage American producers like 3M to sell their inventories of N95 masks to China. One month later, when American hospitals desperately needed N95s, they were forced to import them — and pay up to 10 times what American producers would have charged, according to the documentary.
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Mike Pence's coronavirus task force had more than twice as many industry reps and politicians as scientists

The 9 biggest takeaways from 'Totally Under Control,' a new documentary filmed in secret about the Trump administration's coronavirus response
US Vice President Pence addresses reporters during his daily Coronavirus Task Force news briefing at the White House in Washington, March 10, 2020.Reuters

As of March, just six of the 20 members of Vice President Mike Pence's coronavirus task force had scientific expertise. One of them was Ben Carson, Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, who is a surgeon by training but has little public-health expertise.

Other members of the task force included Joseph Grogan, a former lobbyist for Gilead Sciences (the company that makes remdesivir); Stephen Biegun, a former lobbyist for Ford who served as Sarah Palin's foreign-policy adviser in 2008; and Ken Cuccinelli, a climate-change skeptic who was formerly the attorney general of Virginia.

Jared Kushner's PPE task force consisted largely of unpaid 20-something volunteers working 7 days a week

The 9 biggest takeaways from 'Totally Under Control,' a new documentary filmed in secret about the Trump administration's coronavirus response
Jared Kushner.Anna Moneymaker-Pool/Getty Images
When 26-year-old Max Kennedy Jr. volunteered to be on Jared Kushner's coronavirus task force, he joined a group of other young, unpaid volunteers in a windowless conference room in the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The walls were covered in TVs that blared Fox News 24/7.
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Kennedy and the other volunteers — none of whom had experience in supply chains — were put to work trying to buy PPE from Chinese factories.

"We thought we'd be auxiliary support," Kennedy, the grandson of Robert F. Kennedy, says in the film. "Instead, we were the team."

According to Kennedy, he and other volunteers used their personal email accounts to communicate with the factories.
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Kennedy quit the task force in April, then sent an anonymous complaint to Congress detailing the task force's incompetence.

"In my time on the task force," he said, "our team did not directly purchase a single mask."

Kushner told California Gov. Gavin Newsom to publicly thank Trump in order to get testing supplies

The 9 biggest takeaways from 'Totally Under Control,' a new documentary filmed in secret about the Trump administration's coronavirus response
California Gov. Gavin Newsom displays a bottle of hand sanitizer at a Capitol news conference in Sacramento, California, Wednesday, March 4, 2020.Rich Pedroncelli/AP
In April, when Newsom asked the White House for 350,000 testing swabs, Kushner told his advisers that the federal help would hinge on Newsom doing the Trump administration a favor. Newsom would have to call Trump, and he would have to thank him publicly.
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Newsom apparently did both: On April 22, he publicly thanked the president for a "substantial increase" in testing supplies. Newsom has denied this version of events, however, saying that "no one told me to express" gratitude.

State and federal governments bid against one another, eBay-style, for ventilators and PPE

The 9 biggest takeaways from 'Totally Under Control,' a new documentary filmed in secret about the Trump administration's coronavirus response
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.Jeenah Moon/Getty Images
"It's like being on eBay with 50 other states," New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said of the situation in March, when severe equipment shortages forced states to bid against one another for critical supplies like ventilators and masks from private companies. The bidding war drove up the prices of those supplies, increasing profits for foreign manufacturers at taxpayers' expense. FEMA also outbid many states, driving Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker to express frustration during a teleconference with Trump on March 19.
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"I got a feeling that if somebody has a chance to sell to you or has a chance to me, I'm going to lose every one of those," Baker said.

Trump laughed.

"Well, we do like you going out and seeing what you can get, if you can get it faster," Trump said. "And price is always a component of that also. And maybe that's why you lost to the feds."
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This story was originally published on October 7. It has been updated with new information.

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