At every turn, Donald Trump and Republican lawmakers have opted to hide information around COVID-19 diagnoses rather than disclose it, despite the enormous health risks this creates for everyone around them. In his latest selfish act of endangerment, Trump, still infected with coronavirus, left isolation Wednesday afternoon and worked from the Oval Office, requiring staff to wear personal protective equipment like a gown, surgical mask and eye protectors supplied at a so-called “isolation cart.”
Trump’s combination of obfuscation and aggressive recklessness has unleashed a tide of infections and increased exposure risks not only on the White House staff, but also on top military personnel and the broader populace of the District of Columbia.
The White House is still refusing to answer basic questions, such as when Trump’s last negative COVID-19 test was; we still don’t know when Trump got infected. The September 29 debate relied on an “honor system” that allowed the Trump campaign, which arrived too late to test and get back results on-site, to enter anyway. But it’s possible Trump hadn’t been tested for days before the debate: The New York Times reported that the White House was merely creating an “impression” that Trump was being tested daily, and in fact, Trump was not tested daily.
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What we do know is that even after the White House knew Trump’s close adviser Hope Hicks was experiencing coronavirus symptoms, the president traveled to a New Jersey fundraiser at his Bedminster golf resort anyway, exposing his security detail, staff and his donors, who paid up to attend. It was not the White House that announced Hope Hicks had tested positive; the story was broken by Bloomberg’s Jennifer Jacobs. Without Jacobs’s reporting, it seems likely the White House would have hidden everything it could.
Trump has long relied on lies and obfuscation in his tenure, and now he and his inner circle are endangering both the nation and their own staff to try to maintain their grip on power. Attorney General Bill Barr — who’s an integral part of Trump’s ongoing efforts to suppress the vote, and who stands accused by 1,600 former Department of Justice attorneys of trying to help Trump in the election — initially refused to quarantine despite his extensive exposure at a Rose Garden event on September 26. On October 4, he did, but not before likely exposing many others due to his recklessness.
Republican lawmakers have been equally negligent. Sen. Mike Lee experienced symptoms on October 1, got a test, but went to the Senate anyway and potentially exposed his colleagues. Lee was likely infected at the Amy Coney Barrett nomination announcement in the Rose Garden, where he was taped hugging people without wearing a mask. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has refused to tell reporters the last time he was tested; and Sen. Chuck Grassley, who’s 87 years old and third in line of succession after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, has said he will not bother to get tested. Sen. Ron Johnson got tested for COVID-19 on October 2, but rather than quarantine while awaiting results, he went to an Oktoberfest-themed fundraiser. And Sen. Roger Wicker was photographed with his mask below his face on a Delta flight out of Washington, D.C., leading to the airline announcing it would investigate the incident.
This behavior is happening even as the entire Republican Senate caucus has likely been exposed, as they meet three times a week in person for lunch, and they remove their masks while eating and talking. This cavalier attitude extends to Republican lawmakers outside D.C. and has already had lethal consequences: A GOP county chair in Arkansas died from COVID-19, after his committee hosted a maskless gathering last month that Republican Sen. Tom Cotton and Rep. Louie Gohmert attended.
Trump and Republicans’ behavior is also likely responsible for stymieing the nation’s military leadership. Admiral Charles Ray, the vice commandant of the Coast Guard, tested positive on Monday, creating a risk of exposure throughout senior military leadership, and leading all the Joint Chiefs of Staff to quarantine. Ray attended a September 27 event at the White House with Gold Star families where guests were indoors, without masks.
Trump’s deputies have also been reckless with the health of those around them, flouting Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines to quarantine after exposure. White House Spokesperson Kayleigh McEnany briefed the press without a mask just one day before she tested positive. One of McEnany’s staff assistants has subsequently tested positive, too.
The consequences have been devastating for the region. Trump’s series of maskless, close-quarter events, from the Rose Garden to the Gold Star families event on September 27, haven’t just infected the White House’s inner circle — their effect has spread out into the District of Columbia overall. On October 5, Washington, D.C., saw 105 new cases, its largest one-day spike in new infections since June. At the U.S. Capitol, several people are on leave after testing positive, or presumed positive. Two members of the White House residence staff have tested positive, and were told to use “discretion” when discussing it. The residence staff numbers nearly 90, are largely Black and Latino, and often elderly.
Meanwhile, in an abject display of medical malfeasance, the White House is not allowing staff to test for the coronavirus at the White House Medical Unit clinic, according to an October 4 report from CNN’s Kaitlan Collins. Instead, the White House is directing staff members to stay home and talk to their primary care physicians if they are experiencing symptoms. The lack of care for White House staff may have contributed to a spike in the number of people using the District of Columbia’s free, outdoor coronavirus testing sites. On October 5, 600 coronavirus tests were conducted at just one testing site — about double the daily average.
As a result of the chaos in the region and the vacuum of leadership, members of Congress from the D.C., Maryland and Virginia region wrote to the White House demanding it release the total number of positive tests among White House personnel. The lawmakers are also demanding that the White House conduct expedited contact tracing to identify and notify anyone who came into contact with Trump. But the White House has refused to do so, even as the CDC has offered its help. In the absence of crucial transparency from the White House, Middlebury college student Benjy Renton has partnered with infectious disease researcher Jesse O’Shea and media analytics professional Peter Walker to launch a crowdsourced website to track the events that likely led to infections, and compiled the results of White House staff’s tests. Meanwhile, reporters have been compiling timelines.
No one has been as reckless with others’ health than Trump himself, nor as shamelessly theatrical about it. On Monday, Trump tweeted the ableist sentiment that one shouldn’t let coronavirus “dominate your life,” implying that the more than 210,000 who’ve died from the virus thus far did so due to some personal failing, rather than succumbing to a deadly disease. And when he left Walter Reed hospital to return to ongoing medical care at the White House on Monday, he stood on the balcony before cameras, dramatically removing his mask — his breathing visibly strained. It was a visual meant to project strength, but most saw through it for the larger symbolism. While cloth masks may help protect the wearer from large droplets expelled by others, they are most effective in preventing the wearer from spreading the virus to others. By ceremoniously removing his mask on Monday, Trump was implicitly declaring, “I will infect you” to a nation on edge.
Note: This article was updated late Wednesday to incorporate new information about Trump’s return to the Oval Office.