The White House’s Covid-19 Outbreak

After spending three days at Walter Reed Medical Center, then-President Trump — still contagious with Covid-19 — returned to the White House, where lax safety measures had recently led to an outbreak of the novel coronavirus. Questions remain about that outbreak, from how it began to how the administration traced those infected, and about how forthcoming the government was about the Trump's condition and when he first contracted the virus.

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.

Updates

One Year of Covid-19 Oversight

March 3, 2021
A timeline of the pandemic’s first 12 months and our efforts to hold government officials accountable for their handling of the historic public health crisis.

Investigations Update: The Attack on the Capitol, Georgia U.S. Attorney’s Resignation, and White House Meeting with State Attorneys General

January 13, 2021
Summary: See the latest in our investigations of the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol, the resignation of U.S. Attorney Byung J. Pak, and states’ responses to the pandemic.

Covid-19 Oversight News: Covid-19 at the Capitol and Vaccine Confusion in the States

January 11, 2021
For the latest news on the pandemic, as well as updates on various oversight investigations, sign up for our weekly Covid-19 Oversight News email.

Covid-19 Oversight News: Lagging Vaccine Distribution and Rising Cases

January 5, 2021
For the latest news on the pandemic, as well as updates on various oversight investigations, sign up for our weekly Covid-19 Oversight News email.

News Roundup: A Litany of Failures

December 10, 2020
The past nine months have seen their share of difficult, frustrating, and even infuriating news. But the past week has aptly captured the administration’s failure to control the pandemic, and the tragic results of that failure, as few previous weeks have.

Covid-19 Oversight News: Pandemic Surge, Vaccine Contracts, and Another White House Outbreak

November 16, 2020
For the latest news on the pandemic, as well as updates on various oversight investigations, sign up for our weekly Covid-19 Oversight News email.

In the Documents: White House Pandemic Communications Efforts

November 2, 2020
Since the early days of the pandemic, the White House has often exhibited more apparent concern with managing public relations than with controlling the virus.

Covid-19 Oversight News: Hospital Data Collection, Vaccine Costs, and Politics Over Public Health

November 2, 2020
For the latest news on the pandemic, as well as updates on various oversight investigations, sign up for our weekly Covid-19 Oversight News email.

Covid-19 Oversight News: FDA Resistance, CDC Guidelines, and Avoidable Tragedy

October 26, 2020
For the latest news on the pandemic, as well as updates on various oversight investigations, sign up for our weekly Covid-19 Oversight News email.

Covid-19 Oversight News: Politicization at the FDA and CDC, and the Oversight Commission’s Delayed September Report

October 19, 2020
For the latest news on the pandemic, as well as updates on various oversight investigations, sign up for our weekly Covid-19 Oversight News email.

News Roundup: Restricting the Vote

October 15, 2020
As the election draws nearer, political observers are increasingly turning attention to poll results in states across the country. But of course, poll numbers don’t mean much if ballots aren’t counted — or if people can’t vote in the first place.

Covid-19 Oversight News: Trump’s Florida Rally, New FDA Vaccine Guidelines, and Covid-19 in Detention Centers

October 13, 2020
For the latest news on the pandemic, as well as updates on various oversight investigations, sign up for our weekly Covid-19 Oversight News email.

News Roundup: The Real Dangers

October 8, 2020
Trump’s three-day stay at the hospital and the outbreak at the White House have done little to moderate his antagonistic politics or even make him take the pandemic seriously.

American Oversight Launches Investigation of White House Coronavirus Outbreak

October 7, 2020
The president’s Covid-19 diagnosis was just one of many confirmed cases among high-level officials and White House staffers.

Investigations Update: The White House Outbreak, the Administration’s Naturalization Policy, and Texas’ Ballot Drop Boxes

October 6, 2020
See the latest in our investigations into the administration’s immigration policy, absentee voting requirements, and voter suppression in the states.
Show all updates

Related Documents

October 8, 2020

FOIA to Walter Reed and White House Military Medical Unit for NDAs Signed by Government Employees in Connection with President Trump’s Care

Department of Defense, DOD - Defense Health Agency, DOD - Walter Reed National Military Medical Center
FOIA Request
October 7, 2020

FOIA to Navy Regarding Potential Treatment of Non-Military Relatives of Prominent Individuals in Military Medical Facilities

Department of Defense, DOD - Defense Health Agency, DOD - U.S. Department of the Navy, DOD - Walter Reed National Military Medical Center
FOIA Request
October 7, 2020

FOIA to White House Military Office Seeking Records Showing the Timing of the President’s COVID-19 Tests

Department of Defense, DOD - Defense Health Agency, DOD - U.S. Department of the Navy, DOD - Walter Reed National Military Medical Center
FOIA Request
October 6, 2020

FOIA to Multiple Agencies Regarding Health and Safety Procedures During the President’s Treatment

Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, DHS - United States Secret Service, DOD - Walter Reed National Military Medical Center
FOIA Request
October 3, 2020

FOIA to DOJ Seeking Recent OLC Opinions Regarding Presidential Succession

Department of Justice, DOJ - Office of Legal Counsel
FOIA Request
October 3, 2020

FOIA to DOJ Seeking Older OLC Opinions Regarding Presidential Succession

Department of Justice, DOJ - Office of Legal Counsel
FOIA Request
October 3, 2020

FOIA to DOJ Seeking OLC Guidance Regarding Presidential Succession

Department of Justice, DOJ - Office of Legal Counsel
FOIA Request
October 3, 2020

FOIA to DOJ Seeking OLC Emails Regarding Presidential Succession

Department of Justice, DOJ - Office of Legal Counsel
FOIA Request