Early in the morning of Oct. 2, 2020, then-President Donald Trump announced via Twitter that he and First Lady Melania Trump had tested positive for Covid-19. The diagnosis kicked off a whirlwind of confusion, fed in no small part by a lack of transparency over how the outbreak at the White House began and over the president’s condition.
Just hours before the president’s announcement — as he attended an indoor fundraiser at his New Jersey golf club — Bloomberg News’ Jennifer Jacobs reported that Trump adviser Hope Hicks had tested positive. Hicks had traveled with Trump to Minnesota the night before, and to the first presidential debate in Cleveland the evening before that. The president’s travel over those three days raised serious concerns about when he had last tested negative, which the White House did not specify.
In the ensuing days, other White House staffers and military personnel also tested positive. The president’s case is one of many potentially linked to the Sept. 26 Rose Garden event honoring Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, in which attendees mingled in close proximity, without masks. In addition to the president and first lady, two Republican senators, former Gov. Chris Christie, former Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway, and press secretary Kayleigh McEnany were among the attendees who tested positive.
After Trump was taken to Walter Reed Medical Center, his doctors flip-flopped on crucial information, including when the president received his diagnosis and whether he was on oxygen support, raising the possibility that Trump may have knowingly exposed supporters and workers in Minnesota and New Jersey to the virus.
Despite the diagnosis — and indications, according to medical experts, that his case was serious — Trump still didn’t take the coronavirus seriously. While at Walter Reed, Trump briefly left the hospital in an armored SUV, riding past and waving at supporters who had gathered outside for a photo op that endangered both hospital staff and Secret Service officers. When announcing his release the next day, the president declared on Twitter, “Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life.” And upon his highly staged return to the White House, Trump removed his mask in front of the press and entered the building without it.
The president’s behavior has put those around him at risk and is paralleled by others in his administration. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines state that even if an individual is asymptomatic and has tested negative, they should quarantine if they have been in close contact with someone who tested positive. But multiple members of the administration who have been exposed to the virus, including Vice President Mike Pence and Attorney General William Barr, refused to do so, or only began self-isolating after a few days.
The White House also resisted taking appropriate steps to curb the outbreak. It decided not to trace the contacts of those who attended the Rose Garden event for Barrett. Officials rebuffed CDC offers to lead a contact-tracing investigation into the outbreak and reportedly did not respond to attempts to connect from local D.C. officials, whose communities are now at risk.
The lax safety measures also exposed essential workers to the virus — including security officers, servers, cleaners, cooks, health-care workers, and journalists. Under normal circumstances, around 90 full-time staff members take care of the first family, and it was unclear how many were continuing to work in person. The New York Times’ Maggie Haberman reported on Oct. 5 that two members of the White House housekeeping staff tested positive and had been told to use “discretion” in talking about it. At least three reporters also contracted the coronavirus after being exposed to it at the White House.
American Oversight has filed requests for information about the procedures in place to protect the health of the president, Secret Service officers, and other federal employees while the president recovers from the coronavirus, and we will continue to investigate the reckless behavior and failures of transparency that have defined the outbreak at the White House.