How the coronavirus spread in Trump’s White House

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Spirits were high. Finally, Trump was steering the national discussion away from the coronavirus pandemic — which had already killed more than 200,000 people in the United States and was still raging — to more favorable terrain, a possible conservative realignment of the Supreme Court.

Attendees were so confident that the contagion would not invade their seemingly safe space at the White House that, according to Jenkins, after guests tested negative that day they were instructed they no longer needed to cover their faces. The no-mask mantra applied indoors as well. Cabinet members, senators, Barrett family members and others mixed unencumbered at tightly packed, indoor receptions in the White House’s Diplomatic Room and Cabinet Room.

Five days later, that feeling of invincibility was cruelly punctured. On Thursday, counselor to the president Hope Hicks, who reported feeling symptoms during a trip with the president to Minnesota on Wednesday, tested positive for the virus. Early Friday morning, Trump announced that he and the first lady also had tested positive and had begun isolating inside the White House residence.

On Friday, Lee, Conway and Jenkins announced that they, too, had tested positive, as did Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), who was at the ceremony, and Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, who had recently spent time with the president, including at an indoor fundraiser last week. At least three journalists who had been at White House events in the past week also reported testing positive on Friday. And White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said he was bracing for additional infections among administration officials.

By Friday afternoon, Trump’s condition had worsened, officials said, though they maintained he was “in good spirits.” The president had a low-grade fever, a cough and nasal congestion, among other symptoms, according to two people familiar with his condition who, like others interviewed for this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly discuss a sensitive matter.

Trump was transported about 6:16 p.m. Friday to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for further treatment out of what the White House described as an abundance of caution.

As Trump’s condition deteriorated during the day Friday, the president and his team ultimately made the decision to send him to Walter Reed preemptively — and, from a public relations perspective, when he was still able to walk to Marine One on his own, according to one outside adviser in frequent contact with White House officials. They feared the possibility of a further decline, and what that might mean, both for the president’s health and his political optics.

The White House outbreak thrust Washington into a state of heightened alarm Friday, with uncertainty one month before the election about the health of the president, whose age of 74, as well as additional co-morbidities — obesity, high cholesterol and slightly elevated blood pressure increase his risks of a negative outcome.

Though White House officials have begun contact tracing to try to identify the origin of the outbreak, it is not publicly known whether the Rose Garden announcement of Barrett’s nomination was a superspreader event.

Still, the jarring contrast between the carefree, cavalier attitude toward the virus on display in the Rose Garden last Saturday and the pernicious awakening that occurred Thursday night resembles a Shakespearean tragedy.

The White House’s handling of the period between the first known symptoms — those of Hicks on Wednesday — and the president’s infection, which was confirmed about 1 a.m. Friday, is what experts considered a case study in irresponsibility and mismanagement.

Administration officials at first were not transparent with the public, and have not been forthcoming with detailed information about Trump’s condition since. Meadows told reporters Friday morning only that Trump was experiencing “mild symptoms” and would not elaborate on what those symptoms were.

“I’m not going to get into any particular treatment that he may or may not have,” Meadows said.

On Friday afternoon, the White House distributed a memorandum by White House physician Sean Conley describing Trump as “fatigued but in good spirits.” Though Conley listed the drugs he had administered, he provided to the public no measurements of the president’s condition, nor did he nor any other knowledgeable source submit to questions from journalists.

‘Losing their minds’

Inside the West Wing’s narrow corridors, where staffers for months have worked in proximity largely without masks, what had long been an atmosphere of invincibility turned into one of apprehension and panic. “People are losing their minds,” said the outside adviser.

First, aides fretted about their own risks of exposure. If the president got infected, so might they.

Then they considered the political implications, coming so close to the Nov. 3 election. “We don’t want to be talking about coronavirus and now we’re talking about coronavirus,” the outside adviser said. “The hit writes itself: He can’t protect the country. He couldn’t even protect himself.”

Then they considered the reality that the president could actually get very sick. Trump was unusually quiet Friday, not appearing before cameras nor even calling into Fox News Channel by phone, as he does from time to time.

Vice President Pence, whose doctor said he tested negative for the virus Friday morning, worked from his residence at the Naval Observatory for the day. But other White House officials did not take the same precautions.

Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, the president’s daughter and son-in-law who both are senior advisers and have interacted with Trump and Hicks this week, tested negative on Friday, said White House spokeswoman Carolina Hurley. But she declined to answer questions about whether the two planned to self-isolate, and Kushner was seen at work in the White House on Friday.

Meadows, who also has had regular interaction with Trump and Hicks, did not wear a mask when he briefed reporters outdoors on Friday morning. Asked why, the chief of staff responded defensively, “I’ve obviously been tested. We’re hopefully more than six feet away.”

It was unclear where or how Trump contracted the virus, but his travel schedule has been robust all week. He visited five states between Sunday and Monday and interacted with hundreds of individuals.

The first sign of symptoms inside the presidential bubble came on Trump’s trip Wednesday to Minnesota, where he attended a campaign fundraiser in Shorewood and an evening rally in Duluth.

Hicks, who spends more time with the president than most staffers, tested negative for the coronavirus on Wednesday morning, but started to feel ill during the Minnesota trip. She self-isolated aboard Air Force One for the flight home that night, although some other aides on the trip were unaware she had done so. Hicks took another test Thursday morning, and the results came back positive.

Meanwhile, Trump’s voice sounded raspy at times during his rally performance in Duluth, and he delivered a shorter speech than is typical, clocking in at 46 minutes compared to other recent rally speeches that have stretched well past an hour.

On Thursday, Hicks’s diagnosis was kept secret from the public and even from some of her own colleagues. Press secretary Kayleigh McEnany did not know Hicks had the virus when she briefed reporters about 11 a.m., but learned midafternoon, as the president was preparing to depart for another campaign fundraiser, this one at his private golf club in Bedminster, N.J.

By then, word about Hicks’s condition had begun spreading among Trump aides. Some staffers suddenly started wearing masks, a sign that something was amiss. A few senior aides were pulled from the Bedminster trip, including McEnany, who had been around Hicks extensively that week and was replaced by one of her deputies, Judd Deere.

Other aides on the trip were Johnny McEntee, Tony Ornato and Brian Jack. None wore a mask on Air Force One, but they did aboard Marine One, considering the helicopter has far tighter quarters than the airplane.

“Trump thought he could go to the fundraiser and keep it secret that Hicks  had it,” Republican donor Dan Eberhart said.

Trump’s decision to proceed with the fundraiser after the known infection of Hicks, someone with whom he had extended recent close contact, went against the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other public health authorities.

“They knew she was positive and they still let Marine One take off with the president. Why didn’t they ground him? That was the break in protocol,” said Kavita Patel, a practicing physician and former health adviser in the Obama White House. “The CDC’s protocol clearly states that as soon as anybody, i.e. Hope Hicks, was confirmed positive, anybody she came into close contact with for at least 48 hours prior should have at least isolated.”

In Bedminster, Trump held a roundtable fundraiser indoors where donors were sitting around the table with him. Masks were not worn in the room. The president then went outdoors to address a larger group, and some of those attendees wore masks, people present said.

Many of the attendees were elderly, a mix of real estate figures and Trump friends, including Keith Frankel, a vitamins executive who had worked with Trump on hydroxychloroquine, an ­anti-malarial drug Trump had falsely touted as a coronavirus cure.

“It was mostly the same stuff you hear him say on TV,” Frankel said of the president’s remarks, describing them in an interview late Thursday before Trump had tested positive.

En route back to the White House, Trump acknowledged Hicks’s diagnosis to his traveling team and said he was going to be tested, people with knowledge of his comments said.

News of Hicks’s infection came late in the evening — not in a public release by the White House, but rather from a Bloomberg News report, which White House officials quickly confirmed. About 10 p.m., Trump called into his friend Sean Hannity’s show on Fox for a pre-scheduled interview, where the host asked him about Hicks contracting the virus. Trump said he had taken a test and was awaiting his results.

“You know, it’s very hard,” the president said, his voice again sounding raspy. “When you’re with soldiers, when you’re with airmen, when you’re with Marines, and I’m with — and the police officers. I’m with them so much. And when they come over here, it’s very hard to say, ‘Stay back, stay back.’ It’s a tough kind of a situation. It’s a terrible thing. So, I just went for a test, and we will see what happens. I mean, who knows?”

In another breach of standard protocol for controlling the spread of the virus, not everyone who had come into contact with the president was immediately notified by the White House’s contact tracers. Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who had been helping Trump with debate preparation earlier this week, said Friday afternoon that he had not been contacted. In addition, at least one journalist who tested positive after traveling with the president this week also had not heard from the White House as of Friday afternoon.

‘No one was distanced’

As White House officials worked to trace the origin of the outbreak, they became concerned about a series of events Saturday: Barrett’s Rose Garden announcement and the private indoor receptions surrounding it.

A feeling of invincibility from the virus was pervasive. Guests were administered rapid coronavirus tests upon arrival and waited in a room wearing masks, according to Jenkins, the Notre Dame president. Then, he wrote in a statement Friday, “we were notified that we had all tested negative and were told that it was safe to remove our masks.”

Once escorted outside, guests mingled in the Rose Garden shaking hands and hugging, then took seats positioned closely together. Jenkins said he regretted “my mistake” of not wearing a mask and shaking hands at the event.

The mixing continued at indoor receptions to celebrate Barrett, which two White House officials said Friday have caused deep concern within the president’s circle. They were attended by Cabinet members, senators, Barrett’s family, family members of the late Justice Antonin Scalia and other guests, including Fox News host Laura Ingraham.

“They were all mingling without masks and in close quarters,” one of the officials said. “No one was distanced.”

Rochelle Walensky, chief of the division of infectious disease at Massachusetts General Hospital and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, said a negative test is hardly a guarantee of immunity.

“People believe that if their test is negative, then they should be fine and the truth is that means you’re fine today,” Walensky said. “It doesn’t even mean you’re fine tonight, as the Thursday testing demonstrated.”

On the Friday night before the Barrett announcement, Trump attended an indoor fundraiser at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, along with McDaniel, Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia, lobbyist Brian Ballard and a coterie of Trump aides and allies.

McDaniel, who then spent two days with the president before beginning to show symptoms earlier this week, tested positive for the virus on Wednesday. She told the president about her infection on Friday morning, although she had notified some White House officials before then, according to two people familiar with the situation. She attempted to reach Trump sooner but did not get through to him and spoke instead with a White House doctor.

Trump’s non-socially distanced interactions continued throughout the week. After the Barrett announcement, Trump traveled to Middletown, Pa., to hold an evening campaign rally. On Sunday, he played golf at his private club in Northern Virginia, held a news conference at the White House and hosted a reception for Gold Star parents. On Monday, Trump spoke in the Rose Garden to update the nation on the coronavirus.

All the while, Trump held debate preparation meetings with Christie, Hicks, Conway, personal lawyer Rudolph Giuliani and a handful of other advisers. Neither Trump nor Hicks showed symptoms or wore a mask, according to two people with knowledge of the discussions.

“He was totally like himself,” Conway said. 

Trump traveled Tuesday afternoon to Cleveland for his first debate with Democratic nominee Joe Biden. The candidates’ podiums stood 12 feet 8 inches apart, roughly double the recommended social distancing space of six feet, according to Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., co-chair of the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates.

Fahrenkopf said the commission adopted changes to the routine because of the pandemic, including killing the typical meet-and-greet backstage. Everybody in the debate hall — other than Trump, Biden and moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News — was required to test negative for the virus and to wear a mask.

“The first family came in wearing masks, but they took them off,” Fahrenkopf said. “The rules said you had to wear a mask.”

Trump’s schedule continued apace Wednesday and Thursday. When he spoke about the virus in the Rose Garden on Monday afternoon, the president all but declared victory over the virus.

“Tremendous progress is being made,” he said. “I say, and I’ll say it all the time: We’re rounding the corner. And, very importantly, vaccines are coming, but we’re rounding the corner regardless.”

He could not have known then what was yet to come.

Amy Gardner contributed to this report.

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