On July 27, a dozen physicians posed in front of the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., dressed in white lab coats with “America’s Frontline Doctors” stitched over the pocket. The group’s chief spokesperson was Dr. Simone Gold, an emergency physician from Los Angeles. They were introduced by Jenny Beth Martin, the founding CEO of Tea Party Patriots, as participants in the “White Coat Summit.” The doctors made spirited arguments for the use of hydroxychloroquine as a “cure” for Covid-19 and against wearing masks and imposing lockdowns—all running counter to the recommendations of Dr. Anthony Fauci and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Although the event was billed as a “press conference,” few journalists attended. A video posted by a bystander showed only a handful of attendees, most of them dressed in tourists’ shorts and T-shirts. But the event was livestreamed by Breitbart News and quickly went (so to speak) viral.
There was a rapid backlash. Much of the media attention focused on Dr. Stella Immanuel, one of Gold’s cohort. Following the press conference, the Daily Beast posted a video of Immanuel, who is also a Pentecostal preacher, delivering a sermon claiming that various female ailments were caused by sexual visitations from “demons.”
Immanuel has since disappeared from the America’s Frontline Doctors online roster, but the group has continued to get traction. On August 10, Pat Robertson’s show on the Christian Broadcasting Network carried an interview with Simone Gold and an endorsement of her hydroxychloroquine cure. On August 21, Alex Jones’s NewsWars carried an interview with another member of America’s Frontline Doctors, Mark McDonald. McDonald—a child psychiatrist—maintained, “If all Americans had access to hydroxychloroquine, the pandemic would essentially end in about 30 days.”
Science has shown otherwise. Despite early hopes last spring, there is mounting evidence that hydroxychloroquine is a problematic—and even dangerous—treatment for Covid-19. One expert with firsthand knowledge is Nick Sawyer, an academic emergency physician in Sacramento, Calif. In July he wrote an article for Lifeline, the publication of the California chapter of the American College of Emergency Physicians, describing his harrowing two weeks of service in the Covid wards of Elmhurst Hospital in Queens. Sawyer was part of a team of California doctors dispatched by Governor Gavin Newsome to offer emergency assistance at the epicenter of the epidemic, at the height of the New York City outbreak.
Sawyer is now dealing with the spike in cases in California, this time with the benefit of four months of additional Covid research. “The science on the effectiveness of hydroxychloroquine in treating Covid-19 is settled—multiple high-quality studies have shown that it shows no benefit,” he notes. Far more concerning, Sawyer says, is its potential harm: “Hydroxychloroquine can cause unstable cardiac arrhythmias, cardiac arrest and sudden cardiac death.” Over recent months, the Food and Drug Administration, the American Medical Association, and other organizations have issued warnings that the drug should be withdrawn as a Covid-19 treatment. “It’s irresponsible for America’s Frontline Doctors to continue to push this medication on the unwitting American population,” Sawyer states.
Why, then, would Gold’s band of physicians continue its campaign to pitch the treatment to the public? Simone Gold has repeatedly described her group as a “grassroots organization” acting in the service of its patients. In fact, it has been a highly orchestrated effort, months in the making, assembled by conservative Washington insiders in direct consultation with the White House, with the goal of reopening the economy in time to benefit Trump’s reelection prospects—regardless of the toll in human lives.
The first public mention of the initiative may have been a Washington Post story on April 13, as the virus raged across New York City and Covid-19 deaths passed the 20,000 mark. The Post reported the creation of a new conservative coalition “pushing for the White House and GOP lawmakers to push back against health professionals who have urged more caution.” The leadership was listed as Stephen Moore of the Heritage Foundation, Adam Brandon of FreedomWorks, and Lisa Nelson of the American Legislative Exchange Council. A fourth individual, Jenny Beth Martin, is the founding director of the Tea Party Patriots. She would play a key role in organizing the events to come, including the doctors’ Washington “summit” in July.
Brandon, Nelson, and Martin are all prominent members of a secretive organization called the Council for National Policy, a shadowy coalition that coordinates initiatives among conservative megadonors, political operatives, and media owners, many of them Christian fundamentalists (see “Holding Democracy Hostage”).
The Post story quoted an interview with Richard Viguerie, a co-founder of the CNP, on the mission of the initiative: “The sooner we get the economy going and back up, the better it’s going to be for conservatives and Republicans in this election year. . . . Conservatives feel the government has overreacted, and it’s got to end.”
The new coalition, called Save Our Country, officially debuted on April 27, as U.S. Covid deaths approached 55,000. Headed by economist Art Laffer, its maiden press release featured quotes from Brandon, Nelson, and Martin. “The long-term consequences of a prolonged societal shutdown outweigh the damage done by the virus itself,” Martin stated. “We must immediately reopen the economy.” Earlier that week, The New York Times reported that the Save Our Country coalition’s members were mobilizing their networks for state-level rallies, filing lawsuits, and commissioning polls, all to counter the lockdowns: “Nonprofit groups including FreedomWorks and Tea Party Patriots have used their social media accounts and text and email lists to spread the word about protests across the country.”
But the state-level protests turned out to be of limited utility, and the group began to look for new avenues. In April, CNP Action, the lobbying arm of the CNP, began a series of weekly conference calls to discuss Covid strategy. On May 11—as U.S. Covid deaths reached 74,270—one of the calls was intercepted and published by the Center for Media and Democracy and the Associated Press.
Among the participants were CNP President William Walton, CNP member Nancy Schulze, and Mercedes Schlapp, a senior adviser to the Trump campaign. Schulze, the wife of former nine-term Pennsylvania Republican Congressman Dick Schulze, opened the call with a warning that two-thirds of the American people were wary of reopening the economy. But, she added, “Doctors are seen by the American people—they have a 92 percent trust rate with the American people according to polling. . . . There is a coalition of doctors, doctors’ coalition, who are extremely pro-Trump, that have been preparing and coming together for the war ahead in the campaign on health care, and these doctors could be activated for this conversation now for reopening.
“The one thing the left does give credence to, in that they tend to be motivated by a secular worldview, the one thing that they do appreciate and listen to is science, and we have doctors that have the facts, that lived this themselves, that are in the trenches, that are saying it’s time to reopen,” Schulze continued. “I’ve been working with them for three years. There’s a coalition of doctors . . . including the most respected doctors in this country, that are ready to speak if somebody will just call on them.”
Walton told her, “We need to not just make the economic argument, we need to make the health argument, and we need doctors to make that argument, not us. And so that would be great if you, if we could tee that up.”
Schulze said she’d be happy to put him in touch “with any and all of these doctors, and I have submitted 27 of these doctors’ names to the campaign for the doctors’ coalition that they’re in the process of building.”
Mercedes Schlapp asked Schulze if she had spoken with Hannah Castillo, director of coalitions for the Trump campaign. “I know they’ve been working on building that coalition. I know they’re going through the vetting process right now. As long as you have the names, that would be helpful. . . . Those are the type of guys we want to get out on TV and radio to help push out the message.”
Schulze replied, “I’ve been working with Hannah for over six weeks now, so they already have been vetted. But they need to be put on the screen.”
Dr. Simone Gold, a 54-year-old emergency physician from Los Angeles, was ready for her close-up. On April 22, Gold had tweeted a stand-up of herself wearing a white “Emergency Dept.” coat, in front of Los Angeles’ Cedars-Sinai hospital emergency room, suggesting that concerns over the virus were inflated. She pointed out that the hospital “parking lots are empty, the emergency department volume is down, the patient census is down, and that’s really in most of the areas I’ve been to.”
On May 7, she brought a more explicit anti-lockdown message to a program on the Whiskey Politics show on Salem Radio, part of the massive Salem Media conglomerate owned by two leading members of the Council for National Policy. It was headlined “DR. SIMONE GOLD GOES PUBLIC! What the Government WON’T Tell Us About COVID-19.”
“It’s not at all clear that overall, that social distancing is going to make a huge impact,” Gold said. “We’re all acting like as though there’s a huge medical crisis. There’s a medical issue, we should handle it responsibly, but what’s going on in our country now is a terrible legal crisis. Our constitutional rights are being trampled on right and left.” Gold later added, “There’s always viruses . . . but I’m not sure that it’s front-page news.”
The Guardian reported that over the same period, the Save Our Country coalition spent $50,000 on videos on social media platforms “targeting independents and Republicans with the message that Covid-19 mostly hits the elderly to minimize risks for others.”
On May 19—as U.S. Covid deaths reached 84,640—the CNP’s doctors coalition (billed as “A Doctor A Day”) made its debut with an open letter to Donald Trump signed by “500+ doctors” (a number that was later revised to over 800). “In medical terms, the shutdown was a mass casualty incident,” it stated. “It is impossible to overstate the short, medium, and long-term harm to people’s health with a continued shutdown.” The lead signatory was Dr. Simone Gold.
On June 16—with U.S. Covid deaths approaching 110,000 and the U.S. economy in freefall—the Save Our Country coalition published an open letter to President Trump and Leader McConnell, urging “that the multi-trillions of dollars of federal government debt spending in the wake of the Coronavirus come to a stop.” Twelve of the 20 signatories (among them Brandon, Nelson, and Martin) were members of the CNP, including CNP President William Walton and Executive Director Bob McEwen.
The push to reopen the schools became a full-court press. On July 7, Trump assembled a White House meeting on the subject. Jenny Beth Martin spoke as both the CEO of Tea Party Patriots and “as a mom.”
“Mr. President, you were right, and I hope you will trust your instincts,” she told Trump. “America is not meant to be shut down. And we have to reopen schools this fall. I’ve been in touch with almost a thousand doctors from around the country. I helped Dr. Simone Gold spearhead a letter to you signed by 800 physicians and surgeons who talked about the side effects of the lockdowns. I’ve done a second letter with over 150 doctors, 240 nurses, 330 educators, 70 national groups, and thousands of parents and concerned Americans who want to see schools reopened.”
A video of Martin’s statement appeared, billed as “Mom Gives Unexpected Speech Directly to Trump” without naming her or her affiliation. It was posted on various social media platforms, including Glenn Beck’s YouTube channel, The Blaze (where it clocked over 400,000 views as of August 4).
Dr. Simone Gold was now preparing to join Jenny Beth Martin on center stage. On July 22, Gold warmed up for her appearance on The Charlie Kirk Show, with over 157,000 YouTube subscribers. Kirk, a member of the Council for National Policy, heads a group called Turning Point USA, which recruits right-wing campus activists. (Donald Trump addressed its Youth Action Summit last December, and Donald Trump Jr. is quoted on its website stating, “I’m convinced that the work by Turning Point USA and Charlie Kirk will win back the future of America.”)
The introduction for Kirk’s show summed up the case Gold and her colleagues would make over the coming weeks: “Charlie is joined in studio by board-certified emergency physician Dr. Simon [sic] Gold, who says nearly everything we’ve been told about the Chinese Coronavirus is a lie. She and Charlie take a deep dive into the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine and why the U.S. government is barring physicians from prescribing the drug—endangering potentially 100,000 lives, at least. Charlie also takes on Dr. Fauci and Dr. Birx, asking if Dr. Gold challenges the effectiveness of wearing masks. Dr. Gold makes a stunning and factual assertion about the death rates and who exactly is to blame for what she believes is one of the biggest lies ever perpetrated against the American people.” 
Gold’s “stunning assertion” was the often-repeated claim that doctors were falsifying death certificates, speculating without foundation that they were inflating Covid-19 cases by “20 to 30 percent.” Gold also asserted, “Masks are really foolish, they don’t do anything. . . . There’s zero scientific justification for the mask.”
Jenny Beth Martin emphasized a social media campaign from the start. Her Tea Party Patriots website posted the program of the White Coat Summit, offering the participating doctors a two-hour session devoted to expanding their social media reach: “YouTube and other social media vastly exceed television news as the information source for most Americans. Interviews and Q/A with social media personalities with large followers is the best way to talk to Americans. Doctors who want to answer questions from these modern journalists will have the opportunity.”
By the time Jenny Beth Martin hosted Gold’s White Coat Summit on July 27, U.S. Covid-19 deaths had skyrocketed to over 136,000. The physicians’ presentation carried a lethal stew of misinformation. Dr. Bob Hamilton, a pediatrician from Santa Monica, assured viewers, “Children are not passing [the virus] on to their parents or their teachers.” (A few days later, the CDC released a report on a massive transmission event in June at a Georgia summer camp, with a median age of 12.)
Dr. Richard Urso—an ophthalmologist—praised hydroxychloroquine as a “cure” for the virus, but it was not clear that Urso had ever had any significant experience treating Covid-19 patients. Another speaker was Dr. Daniel Erickson, a Bakersfield physician who co-owns an urgent care facility. In April he had been censured by the American College of Emergency Physicians and the American Academy of Emergency Medicine for his “reckless and untested musings” opposing stay-at-home orders and promoting the conspiracy theory about doctors misattributing deaths to Covid-19.
The social media strategy paid off. Gold and her colleagues’ video, livestreamed on Breitbart News, reportedly reached 185,000 concurrent users. The New York Times’ Kevin Roose reported that over its six hours on Facebook, it was the second-most-engaged post on the platform, with 14 million views. (The audiences for network news broadcasts, by comparison, range from 9 to 12 million.) A few hours after the presentation, President Trump tweeted the video to his 84.5 million followers. Donald Trump Jr. told his 5.3 million Twitter followers, “This video is a much [sic] watch!!! So different from the narrative everyone is running with.” Trump redoubled his support at his press conference the following day, stating “I think they’re very respected doctors.”
But major social media platforms reacted with relative speed. Facebook took the group’s video down a few hours after it was posted, and Twitter and YouTube followed suit, all three on the grounds that the video violated their Covid-19 misinformation policies. Twitter took the unusual step of suspending Trump Jr.’s account for 12 hours.
Gold had built the original America’s Frontline Doctors website on a SquareSpace platform, but SquareSpace took it down. Gold rebuilt the website (omitting Stella Immanuel of “demon sperm” renown) and started raising money through PayPal and fundly.com. The doctors’ program also remained on the Tea Party Patriots site.
There was an additional reaction to the doctors’ “frontline” Covid credentials. MedPageToday, a peer-reviewed medical news site, was unable to find evidence that any of America’s Frontline Doctors in Washington had served in “frontline” emergency rooms during the Covid epidemic. Simone Gold came under additional scrutiny. Her initial Whiskey Politics introduction described her as a “frontline doctor” in an “inner-city emergency room” that treated “150 patients a day,” but neither her LinkedIn profile nor other available sources listed the emergency room in question. Her personal website (taken down amid the controversy but archived) described her as a “Concierge Immediate Needs Physician” working in “C-Suite Medicine.”
On July 29, Cedars-Sinai, the backdrop for Gold’s Twitter video, issued a disavowal stating, “Simone Gold, MD, has not worked with Cedars-Sinai Medical Center or any of its offices or affiliates since 2015. For three weeks in late 2015, Dr. Gold was employed on a per diem basis by Cedars-Sinai Medical Network, a component of Cedars-Sinai. She worked during this brief time in a network urgent care clinic. Dr. Gold is not authorized to represent or speak about any information on behalf of Cedars-Sinai.”
The sharecare.com “Find a Doctor” site stated that “Dr. Simone Gold, MD, is a[n] emergency medicine specialist in Los Angeles, CA. and is affiliated with Centinela Hospital Medical Center.” But on July 31, Centinela Hospital posted a statement reading: “Simone Gold, MD, is not credentialed as part of the Centinela Medical Staff, as she resigned her position here a number of years ago. Dr. Gold was never employed here as we don’t employ our physicians.”
Also troubling was American Frontline Doctors’ repeated suggestion that patients should demand hydroxychloroquine from their doctors for Covid-19. The medication has been an important treatment for lupus and other autoimmune diseases, but the publicity around its application to Covid has created an ongoing shortage with devastating consequences.
Much of the mainstream coverage of America’s Frontline Doctors was devoted to Stella Immanuel’s “demon sperm” sermon, but alternative platforms were another story.
Simone Gold was reaching a vast new public and was now celebrated as a victim. On July 30, Fox News’s Tucker Carlson interviewed her on his nightly program. The crawl stated, “Doctor Censored by Big Tech Has Now Lost Her Job” (though that job was never specified)—echoing Trump’s executive order on Big Tech censorship released the previous day. (Carlson’s show is currently the highest-rated program on cable television, with an audience of over 4.3 million.)
Glenn Beck’s multi-platform media operation, The Blaze, covered the story on his radio program and posted the Tucker Carlson video on its website on July 31, with a companion piece repeating her case for hydroxychloroquine. A similar report was posted the same day on CNS News, founded by Council for National Policy Executive Committee member L. Brent Bozell III. (MediaPost recently named CNS News as the country’s fastest-growing conservative website, with more than 8.3 million unique visitors in June and over 1,000 percent gain in year-over-year unique visitors.) Pat Robertson’s CBN.com averages over four million unique visitors each month. Add these to Alex Jones’s August 21 coverage—as well as legions of subsidiary platforms—and you have a deadly misinformation campaign that’s reaching tens of millions of voters, most of them off the radar of the national news media.
Emergency physician Nick Sawyer is disturbed by the implications for medical practitioners. The America’s Frontline Doctors campaign, he says, “violates two of the primary principles of medical ethics. Medical ethics has four major principles: beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice. As hydroxychloroquine offers no clinical benefit and may be harmful, it violates the first two tenets. Further, their statements place actual frontline physicians treating patients with Covid-19 in conflict with patients’ right to autonomy.
“Patients have the right to make decisions regarding their medical care, but as more and more patients are asking—if not outright demanding—that physicians prescribe hydroxychloroquine to them, it places these physicians in a position where they are faced with an ethical dilemma. We respect patients’ right to autonomy, but we are not willing to allow them to demand a treatment that is not helpful and may be harmful. In sum, America’s Frontline Doctors are introducing additional havoc into the already complex Covid-19 pandemic.”
As of the publication deadline for this article, neither Jenny Beth Martin or Simone Gold had responded to requests for comment.
The day after Gold’s Washington presentation, U.S. Covid-19 deaths stood at 140,309; they swelled to 147,653 only a week later. Less than a month later, on August 21, Donald Trump addressed the Council for National Policy at the Ritz-Carlton in Pentagon City, his last major address before the Republican convention. In his opening remarks, he thanked several figures from the CNP, including Jenny Beth Martin, “for your tremendous leadership of the CNP. You’ve done a fantastic job.”
As of that Friday, over 174,000 Americans had died of Covid-19. That number continues to climb.
Anne Nelson is the author of Shadow Network: Money, Media, and the Secret Hub of the Radical Right. She is the recipient of the Livingston Award for journalism and a Guggenheim Fellowship for historical research.