President Donald Trump hoped this would be the week he emerged into a nation recovering from pandemic. Instead the pandemic came to him.
A day after breaking his White House self-isolation for a cross-country trip meant to signal the country’s readiness to restart, Trump received word that one of his Oval Office valets tested positive for the virus.
Two days later, Vice President Mike Pence’s press secretary also tested positive, setting off another round of tests, delaying the vice president’s trip to Iowa and causing more hand-wringing inside the White House about who might be infected.
Ivanka Trump’s personal assistant also tested positive for coronavirus, a source familiar told CNN on Friday night, although she has been teleworking for nearly two months and has not been around the President’s daughter in several weeks.
More on the White House response
The arrival of coronavirus to the West Wing only served to illustrate the continued spread of the disease months into a pandemic that’s taken more than 77,000 American lives and turned a once hot economy to ice. Even the nightly deep cleanings, regular testing and a lot of wishful thinking couldn’t prevent the virus from arriving on Trump’s doorstep.
Meanwhile, Dr. Stephen Hahn, the head of the Food and Drug Administration, will self-quarantine for 14 days after coming in contact with an individual who tested positive for coronavirus, an FDA spokesman confirmed to CNN. And Dr. Robert Redfield, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is following suit, self-quarantining for two weeks after he was exposed to a person at the White House who tested positive for Covid-19, a CDC spokesperson confirmed to CNN on Saturday.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and member of the White House’s coronavirus task force, told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Saturday he will begin a “modified quarantine” after making a “low risk” contact with the White House staffer who tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
As Trump agitates for states to loosen their restrictions and allow Americans back into workplaces and businesses, the sight of his aides contracting the disease did little to boost confidence the nation is ready to return to normal, even as jobless claims skyrocket to never-seen-before levels and options for reviving the economy fall short.
At the same time, it had no apparent effect on Trump’s willingness to proceed as normal on Friday, when he eschewed a mask while visiting with nonagenarian World War II veterans and invited a large group of lawmakers to the White House for a meeting, all of whom were tested before arriving. Asked the reason his staff weren’t wearing masks on Friday, Trump pointed to the one White House official in the room who was: the White House photographer.
It’s all part of Trump’s business-as-usual approach that’s become his default as he looks to move past the outbreak.
Even as case counts continue rising and the death toll inches northward, Trump has urged governors to consider lifting their restrictions, even though most states currently fail to meet the reopening criteria he unveiled himself last month. He’s downplayed the need for more testing, even though his medical experts have said the opposite and some of his aides now receive them daily.
And he’s declined to wear a mask in public, believing the image of him behind a face covering would send the wrong message as he works to convince Americans the health crisis is waning.
But pandemics pay little attention to messaging. And even if Trump hopes to project business-as-usual at the White House, the virus raging outside its gates has found a way in.
Trump was angry this week when he learned the valet tested positive and asked aides how it was possible a person responsible for handling his beverages could have been exposed to the virus. Trump doesn’t like germs and has chastised staff before when they cough or sneeze in his presence. News of the positive case “hit the fan” among staffers on Wednesday evening, people familiar with the matter said.
“It’s a little bit strange, but it’s one of those things,” Trump said when asked whether the incident spooked him.
Afterward, scores of Secret Service agents and officers, along with administration staffers, were seen filing into a makeshift testing facility on the White House campus to be tested themselves. Trump told reporters everyone around him would now be tested daily – though he also suggested it “wasn’t a perfect art” and has downplayed the need for widespread testing in states looking to reopen.
The test the White House uses, an Abbott Labs product which can produce results quickly, also has a 15% false negative rate, according to the head of the National Institutes of Health.
More on Reopening
Privately, some White House officials have said it was only a matter of time before the virus arrived in the West Wing, where aides rarely wear masks and social distancing is recommended in theory but often difficult to carry out in practice.
Mark Meadows, the President’s chief of staff, indicated Friday the new cases had triggered a change in procedures – even though federal guidelines on social distancing were issued months ago and new, more specific recommendations on how to reopen businesses have been held up by the White House.
“I don’t want to get into all the procedures that we have embarked upon,” he said. “But I can tell you this is probably the safest place that you can come to.”
Later, Meadows said people serving Trump in close proximity such as valets would begin wearing masks and offered tests to journalists covering the President.
A senior White House official said Friday evening contact tracing was performed inside the White House, and test results for all of the people Pence spokeswoman Katie Miller had been in contact with came back negative, including for her husband Stephen Miller, who is Trump’s senior policy adviser.
Testing and temperature checks have been boosted throughout the West Wing, and the White House is making sure staff wear masks in the residence, the official said, while the entire West Wing is being sanitized on an even more frequent basis.
The official said “it’s not perfect” but they are trying to boost measures to be an example to businesses around the country on how to deal with the virus.
When a White House staffer first contracted coronavirus in March, it was seen as a one-off that did not appear to create further contagion among the executive staff. But the latest cases involve people who work in much closer proximity to the President and vice president. And they occurred even with the robust screening and testing practices the White House Medical Unit enacted earlier in the outbreak.
Both strike at the heart of the West Wing. The military valets responsible for the President’s personal needs are a rare group with access to the food he eats and the Diet Cokes he summons with the push of a red button. Katie Miller is one of the vice president’s top aides and typically accompanies him to task force meetings in the Situation Room. The President attended Katie and Stephen Miller’s wedding in February.
News that she had tested positive caused an hour-long delay in Pence’s trip on Friday to Iowa. A number of staffers who’d come into contact with her deplaned to be tested themselves. The results all came back negative.
The vice president’s office said Miller tested positive on Friday but had tested negative only a day earlier – meaning the case would likely have gone unnoticed if the White House had not imposed daily testing for staff members after the valet was found to have it.
The new testing rules have only underscored to aides the new reality in which they find themselves: forced to confront a virus that hasn’t yielded, even though Trump says the country must reopen and Americans must return to work.
That was the intended message of his trip Tuesday to Arizona, where he toured a Honeywell mask facility and delivered a 20-minute speech. Trump had been itching to ditch the White House, though he would prefer to resume hosting boisterous campaign rallies instead of the official visits that aides have scheduled over the next few weeks.
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The lingering effects of the pandemic followed him, however. When he landed at the Phoenix Sky Harbor airport, dozens of idled commercial jetliners sat parked nearby, a reminder that Air Force One was one of the few planes still flying.
During a roundtable with Native Americans, Trump brought along boxes loaded with rapid test kits made by Abbott Labs, the same product used at the White House to test him and his staff for coronavirus. Trump has taken to offering the Abbott kits as gifts, including saying he would send one to former Vice President Joe Biden so he could resume campaigning.
When Trump spoke to plant workers at the mask facility, they faced him sitting six feet apart, all wearing masks. Trump himself briefly put on a mask backstage, but appeared uncomfortable, according to a person familiar with the matter. He was told by an executive from Honeywell that it wasn’t necessary for him to wear it, even though a sign posted at the facility said masks were required for workers.
Walking from table to table in the facility, protected only by a pair of safety goggles, a cover of Guns and Roses’ “Live and Let Die” blared loudly.
This story has been updated to include additional developments on Stephen Hahn, Robert Redfield and Anthony Fauci.
Jim Acosta and Kaitlin Collins contributed to this story.