The Virus Is Coming From Inside the White House
Asking whether the celebration of Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination was a ‘super-spreader’ event misses the point: Trump’s irresponsibility made this crisis likely.
By Olga Khazan and Russell Berman
An alarming number of senators, presidential advisers, and Republican grandees who attended the now-infamous White House celebration of Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee have since tested positive for COVID-19, including the president and his wife. At first blush, the day, which featured a Rose Garden ceremony and a smaller, indoor gathering, looked like a super-spreader event. It might have been.
But ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether the receptions honoring Amy Coney Barrett were the precise moment that the upper echelon of the GOP became infected. The day was only the latest example of the president and his allies flouting basic safety practices. And in the absence of preventive measures, the coronavirus spreads easily.
The photos from the September 26 Rose Garden ceremony look like they were taken in February or March, before Americans were universally aware of the threat of COVID-19. Many attendees did not wear masks; mere inches separated their chairs. In a year in which many Americans have not so much as embraced their mothers, Senator Mike Lee of Utah joyously clutched two other revelers in a double-barreled bear hug. Later that day, during an indoor reception — the kind we have been told is forbidden — the attendees milled around in a small, unventilated room, schmoozing, maskless, inches from one another’s faces.
The Barrett supporters in attendance might have been ignoring social-distancing recommendations in other settings, too — which makes it difficult to pinpoint one risky exposure as the source of this outbreak. In the days after the Barrett party, we know that many of the attendees spent time inside, maskless, in close proximity to others; it is reasonable to think they might have done the same in the days before the event as well. That day at the White House could have sent the virus spreading. Or the virus could already have been rampant.
Public-health experts have good reasons for recommending the measures that Trump’s cohort dismissed. A highly contagious virus like this one spreads quickly in a previously uninfected population, and the only way to stop it is by denying it hosts. For the past six months, these measures have slowed the virus’s spread. But they have not stopped it, and like all other humans, the Republican elites around Trump are vulnerable. Perhaps the most surprising thing about the outbreak is that these are the people who are supposed to be making the rules.
This is what happens when a president is in denial about a global pandemic, and acts accordingly. Trump has repeatedly mocked mask wearing, engaged in wishful thinking, and otherwise minimized the threat of the virus. Many of his supporters, from state leaders to rank-and-file citizens, have followed his example. Now Trump’s recklessness is upending his own world — and the government itself — just weeks before the election. In the hours before and after his COVID-19 diagnosis was revealed on Friday, additional infections and exposures likely stemming from the White House were reported in at least three states and the District of Columbia. Among the infected are Lee and two other senators, Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin; the chair of the Republican National Committee, Ronna McDaniel; the president’s campaign manager, Bill Stepien; Trump’s adviser Hope Hicks; Trump’s former adviser Kellyanne Conway, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and the president of the University of Notre Dame, John Jenkins. This morning, the White House press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, said that she, too, had tested positive for the coronavirus.
Again, it’s not clear whether the Barrett event is what spawned all these cases. (Barrett, who tested negative for the virus on Friday, contracted and recovered from COVID-19 over the summer, according to The Washington Post.) It was the earliest event that many of the infected attended together, but from there, it appears that the virus may have moved with the president, first to a campaign rally the next day in Pennsylvania, then to Trump’s golf club in Virginia, and then on to the first general-election debate in Ohio on Tuesday night.
Officials in Cleveland, which hosted the debate, said that they were aware of 11 confirmed cases of COVID-19 stemming from “pre-debate planning and set-up.” The majority of cases were among out-of-state residents, officials said, suggesting that the virus had been brought to the debate, rather than contracted there. Members of the Trump entourage, including family members, aides, and campaign staff, watched the indoor debate without wearing masks. When offered masks by officials with the Cleveland Clinic, which co-hosted the debate, they “waved them away,” according to the debate moderator, Chris Wallace.
Trump next held a campaign rally in Minnesota on Wednesday. On Thursday, after learning that Hicks, a close aide, had tested positive for COVID-19, he traveled to his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, for a fundraiser. Trump was described as “lethargic” at the event and reportedly came into contact with dozens of wealthy donors, who were alarmed to discover that they had paid upwards of a quarter million dollars to meet not only the president but the deadly illness he was carrying. New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy warned anyone who attended the fundraiser to get tested and self-quarantine as a precaution; the White House has given New Jersey health officials a list of at least 206 people who may have been exposed at the event.
The ripple effects of the president’s infection could be far larger still. On Friday, the White House Correspondents’ Association reported that three journalists who had been in the building last week had tested positive. In apparent violation of airline policy, three Minnesota congressmen flew home on a commercial flight after they were exposed to the president. Countless others, including debate attendees, support staffers, cooks, Secret Service personnel, journalists, and aides who travel with the president, could still be at risk of showing symptoms of the virus in the days to come.
For some in the White House, this string of infections might have served as a wake-up call. As the president prepared to take off for Walter Reed for medical treatment, McEnany and others were photographed standing by, arms crossed, hands to themselves. Like children who had been burned after months of playing with fire, they were more cautious. At long last, they were wearing masks.
The president, though, doesn’t seem to have been changed by the experience. After he got sick, Trump tweeted a video message in which he claimed that he had “no choice” but to breathe in so many people’s faces, because he “had to be out front. And this is America.” Post-diagnosis, his choice to prioritize optics over safety has continued to imperil the health of people close to him. On Sunday evening, Trump briefly left the hospital to take a joyride before his supporters — in a sealed vehicle carrying not just the president, but also the Secret Service agents charged with protecting him.
Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of Weird: The Power of Being an Outsider in an Insider World.
Russell Berman is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covers politics.
Originally published at www.theatlantic.com on October 5, 2020.