The White House Covid-19 outbreak is undermining President Donald Trump’s narrative that it’s safe to open up the country and that diagnostic testing is of limited importance.
The news of three top health officials, all members of the administration’s coronavirus task force, self-quarantining in some form after one of Trump’s valets and another West Wing aide tested positive is jarring alongside Trump’s desire to move on from the pandemic and to concentrate on the staggering economic dimension of the crisis.
The latest developments pose an essential question: If people around Trump are not protected from the virus in the most highly secured workplace in the country, how can it be safe for anyone else to go back to work?
It’s not, and Trump knows it. He’s worried that aides contracting the virus will undercut his message that the outbreak is fading, according to a person who spoke to him. He’s asked why his valets weren’t ordered to wear masks before this week, according to the person, even though that’s the example he himself has set. And Trump has told people he doesn’t want to be near anyone who hasn’t been tested, according to the person who spoke to the President, CNN’s Kevin Liptak reported.
More on the White House's pandemic response
But most Americans – whom Trump hopes will contribute to opening the economy that is so crucial for his reelection campaign – will not have access to the aggressive repeated testing and contact tracing now in place in the White House. Trump has argued that testing should primarily be up to governors to sort out. He has also repeatedly downplayed the importance of testing even though experts say that it is critical to establishing the penetration of the virus and to preventing new waves of infection as normal life begins to resume.
The discovery of the virus in Trump’s inner sanctum comes at a moment when the White House has all but stopped offering medical and scientific information to the public in televised public briefings — furthering the impression that it wants to pivot away from the crisis, even when infections are rising in many states that are opening.
In the middle of the worst public health crisis for 100 years, officials like Dr. Deborah Birx and Dr. Anthony Fauci have become far less visible. The coronavirus task force briefings have been replaced by media trolling sessions by new White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany.
However, Trump and so-far-unidentified senior administration officials are expected to hold a press briefing on testing on Monday afternoon.
The administration sent out its top economic officials to Sunday talk shows to address cataclysmic unemployment data – instead of their public health experts. That left economic aides like Larry Kudlow and Kevin Hassett fielding questions about testing and the safety of workplaces, issues on which they have no scientific expertise.
Former President Barack Obama delivered a strong critique of Trump’s handling of the pandemic late last week, if not intentionally public. He called the Trump administration’s coronavirus response “an absolute chaotic disaster” during a private call Friday night with alumni of his administration.
The President, meanwhile, spent the weekend fuming over the Russia investigation and making false claims on Twitter about voter fraud, pausing to tweet congratulations to himself for his virus management.
Health officials self-quarantine
Three top public health officials, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Robert Redfield, Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn, and Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, are all entering either full or partial quarantine. Their decisions follow the diagnosis of Trump’s personal valet and Vice President Mike Pence’s press secretary Katie Miller last week.
Administration officials spent the weekend scrambling as they attempted to do contact tracing for Miller, but they had not identified who Miller contracted the virus from as of Sunday, raising concerns inside the White House about how to contain the outbreak.
Some aides expressed concern at how Monday would proceed without greater clarity on how the virus had originated and spread. One official said it wasn’t certain which colleagues would stay home. Some officials who had extended contact with Miller announced they would self-quarantine, while others who had similar contact with her did not.
Stephen Miller, Trump’s senior adviser and Katie Miller’s husband, is also staying away from the White House for the immediate future, according to the New York Times. He tested negative on Friday, the Times reported.
But the decision of the President and other senior officials not to follow suit after coming into contact with colleagues who are infected with Covid-19 offers a poor example to other Americans. Trump has also not appeared in public wearing a face mask. Trump is worried that wearing a mask could compromise his reopening message.
Despite his exposure to Miller, Pence has decided not to enter self-quarantine, according to his spokesperson Devin O’Malley, who said that the vice president would follow medical advice and has “tested negative every single day and plans to be at the White House tomorrow.”
Given the cramped nature of the West Wing, which makes proper social distancing all but impossible, the fear is that more cases of Covid-19 will emerge.
This reality potentially raises national security concerns were both Trump and Pence to become infected. The White House outbreak also highlights questions about how carefully the White House has followed its own advice on social distancing and the use of face masks to prevent the spread of the virus. On Saturday, the President met at the White House with senior military officials. No one was wearing a mask in the photo opportunity — though Secret Service agents who were off camera did take the precaution.
The CDC recommends that citizens wear masks in public settings where it is hard to practice social distancing, though the advice is not mandatory.
Hassett, a senior economic adviser to the President who recently returned to government service, told CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday that he was aware of the risks of working in the White House during the pandemic.
“I knew, when I was going back in, that I would be taking risks, that I would be safer sitting at home at my house than going into a West Wing that, even with all the testing in the world and the best medical team on Earth, is a relatively cramped place,” Hassett said. On CBS “Face the Nation,” Hassett admitted: “It is scary to go to work.
Hassett compromised the clarity of the administration’s coronavirus message when he truthfully told CNN’s Jake Tapper that there is “no downside” to more testing, and made the case that the administration is trying to ramp it up.
Trump repeatedly says that the US has done more testing than any other nation, but the US doesn’t lead the pack when it comes to testing per capita, the more significant metric.
But last Tuesday, Trump said: “I don’t think you need that kind of testing or that much testing, but some people disagree with me and some people agree with me.” Trump greeted news of Miller’s diagnosis after previous negative tests by saying it proved “the whole concept of tests are not necessarily great.” On May 6, McEnany said it was a “myth” that every American should be tested. “If we tested every single American in this country at this moment, we’d have to retest them an hour later, and then an hour later after that,” she said.
Hassett revealed on “State of the Union” that everyone who wants to get in to see Trump must first test negative for coronavirus — meaning that the White House has a far more stringent protocol than regular Americans.
It is proper that the President — given his responsibilities as an elected head of state and commander-in-chief of the armed forces – should get the best medical care that is available.
But such provisions open up the White House to accusations of hypocrisy when senior officials are raising questions about the importance of testing. Some public health experts say that the US needs to test many millions of people per day to get a handle on the pandemic. According to CDC figures, at the beginning of the month, testing was running at the rate of 200,000 to 250,000 per day. More recent figures are not necessarily complete so don’t give a full picture.
White House in no rush for new stimulus package
The magnitude of the horrific unemployment figures released on Friday — showing that the jobless rate is at 14.7% and is likely to climb — appears to have solidified Trump’s shift to the position that the economy must be opened up come what may.
“Will some people be affected badly? Yes,” Trump said during a visit to Arizona last week. “But we have to get our country open, and we have to get it open soon.”
Trump’s evolution likely explains the de-emphasis in White House messaging of the public health aspect of the crisis. Last week, CNN reported that the administration would not endorse a 17-page report on guidelines for how states can safely reopen, deeming it to be “overly prescriptive.”
The last time that a senior public health official formally briefed reporters at the White House was during a Rose Garden event on April 27 when Birx, the White House’s coronavirus task force coordinator, spoke. Birx has interjected several times in other events involving the President since. And she appeared on a CNN coronavirus town hall event last week.
Also on Sunday, the White House sent new signals that it is in no rush to conclude another massive economic stimulus deal, despite some states warning their fiscal positions are dire.
Hassett said on “State of the Union” that it was right to pause to assess the need and the pace of the recovery as states begin to open.
“Given that the $9 trillion of aid that passed in the last three phases, given that that is still out there, and there’s still a bunch of it that’s going to be delivered over the next month, we think that we have a little moment, the luxury of a moment, to learn about what’s going on,” he said.
CNN’s Kaitlan Collins and Kevin Liptak contributed to this report.