WASHINGTON – Hours before President Donald Trump tested positive for the deadly coronavirus and just one day before he was admitted to the hospital, he mingled with more than 200 people at his New Jersey golf club for a campaign fundraiser.
Less than a week before that, he welcomed 150 political allies and religious leaders – including several who are now infected – to the White House to meet the jurist he has nominated to the Supreme Court.
In between, the president met with dozens of aides in meetings in which few people wore masks. He appeared before thousands at a rally in Minnesota. And he held a nationally televised debate with former vice president Joe Biden after holing up with debate preppers.
But there was little evidence on Saturday that the White House or the campaign had reached out to these potentially exposed people, or even circulated guidance to the rattled staffers within the White House complex. In this case, the failure to move swiftly potentially jeopardized the health of their own supporters and those close to them, who might fall ill and unwittingly spread the infection to others.
It was the latest evidence of the administration’s casual and chaotic approach to the viral threat that has already claimed more than 200,000 lives in the United States. The crisis within a crisis is emblematic of an administration that has often mocked or ignored the coronavirus guidance of its own medical experts.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had a contact tracing team ready to go, according to multiple sources, but had not been asked to mobilize, even though White House physician Sean Conley said at a press briefing that his team was working with the agency.
Conley also said he was coordinating with local health agencies, but officials in Minnesota, Ohio and New Jersey, where Trump held events in recent days, said they haven’t heard from the White House and are racing to find people potentially exposed to the virus largely on their own.
White House spokesman Judd Deere said any positive test result on the complex is taken seriously and contact tracing is underway.
“The White House has plans and procedures in place that incorporate current CDC guidelines and best practices for limiting covid-19 exposure and has established a robust contact tracing program,” Deere said.
A CDC epidemiologist is detailed to the White House and additional assistance from the CDC will be requested “if necessary,” said an official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal plans.
Numerous guests at the crowded Sept. 26 Rose Garden event at which Trump introduced Amy Coney Barrett as his high court nominee said they have not been contacted by anyone at the White House.
Prominent conservative leader Michael Farris interacted there with Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who has tested positive for coronavirus, just before Lee gave two other people hugs. A video of Farris, who did not wear a mask, shows him scratching his nose after interacting with Lee. Farris said he is awaiting results of a test that will take another day to get results back, but he said he feels fine.
“There’s nothing fail-safe about any protocol, so I’m not upset,” Farris said.
One man who was pictured mingling in the front rows last Saturday, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private medical details, said he heard from no one from the government but his doctor had emailed him indicating “that Mrs. Trump had asked how I was.”
“I’m not sure if that’s true, but that’s what the email said,” the attendee, a former government official, added. He sought out two tests – first a rapid test, then the more involved PCR test – on his own initiative, both of which were negative. The attendee, who is of a more advanced age, is still self-isolating for 14 days on the advice of his doctor.
Like him, many people who attended these events said they had seen early-Friday news reports of the president’s illness and subsequent hospitalization for covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, and were seeking tests on their own.
No one, however, had received expert guidance, which generally urges people with known exposure to an infected person to remain quarantined for 14 days regardless of a negative test result. Exposure is generally defined as contact within six feet for more than 15 minutes.
The crisis has exposed anew how the White House has operated as if it were insulated from a virus officials regarded as overhyped and not nearly as contagious as the one scientists and doctors have been meticulously studying since January.
But now the White House and the president’s reelection campaign appear to have become superspreading operations, with the case count climbing by the hour.
Top aide Hope Hicks is sick. Former top aide Kellyanne Conway tested positive. So have three Republican senators who have been near the president in recent days. So has the president’s campaign chairman. So has Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor who prepped Trump for his Tuesday night debate. And so have several White House journalists.
This has become a multistate emergency. The state of New Jersey asked the Republican National Committee for the guest list for the Thursday roundtable at Trump’s Bedminster golf club. The RNC provided it, according to an official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the exchange.
The RNC also sent an email to the attendees of the event, encouraging them to contact their medical providers “if you or any of your loved ones is ill or develops a fever, shortness of breath, or other respiratory symptoms.”
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, said early Friday that “the contact-tracing process is underway” and urged “everyone who attended yesterday’s event in Bedminster to take full precautions, including self-quarantining and getting tested.”
In Minnesota, state and local officials were still trying to gauge the impact of the president’s campaign swing through the state on Wednesday. State health officials said they had learned of the president’s diagnosis from news reports and reiterated Saturday they had still not been in touch with the White House or the Trump campaign about obtaining a list of those at campaign events.
“There has not yet been any contact with the White House or the RNC,” said Doug Schultz, a spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Health. “In this situation, you could say that the media have been doing most of that work for us through news accounts of those who are positive.”
At least 200 supporters greeted Trump upon his arrival at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport on Wednesday – many without masks, behind a barricade that separated them from the president by about eight feet, according to those who were there. But a group of prominent state Republicans stood closer to Trump on the tarmac as he stepped off Air Force One and are now in self quarantine and awaiting test results.
From there, Trump traveled to Shorewood, Minn., a tony suburb of Minneapolis, where he attended a fundraiser at the lakefront home of Marty Davis, the president and chief executive of Cambria USA, a quartz countertop manufacturer. A state Republican Party official, who declined to be named discussing the event, said about 40 to 50 people attended the indoor gathering.
Still, many Trump supporters who attended events with the president this past week defended his response to the pandemic, and were not upset about his handling of his own diagnosis even though none had been contacted by health authorities.
Katherine Hermes, a member of the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster who lives just down the road, said she attended the fundraiser Thursday just hours before the president revealed his positive coronavirus test.
Hermes said she had a “low-end” ticket that afforded her a spot in a cordoned outdoor area about 50 feet from the steps where Trump spoke behind a lectern. She said she never felt at risk and did not fault the president or the White House for going forward with the event.
“If he wasn’t feeling well, he really bucked up and did a great job,” she said.
Joanne Zervos, 59, a lawyer from West Hampton, N.Y., said much the same. “To be honest with you, his voice to me sounded a little raspy, but I thought he had had back-to-back events,” she said. “But otherwise, he was sharp. He was generous. He was attentive.”
The reaction from inside the White House was more fearful. National Security Council staffers were stunned by the delay in receiving information about the president’s health status after he was diagnosed.
“It’s like deer in headlights,” said one senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share sensitive matters.
Most staffers on Saturday did not know who was conducting the contact tracing effort for the White House, according to another senior administration official. People were told to call the White House medical unit if they began showing symptoms.
One person who was in close touch with Trump said the medical unit encouraged them to monitor symptoms and consider self-quarantining for five to 10 days. “That was it,” the person said.
For months, mask-wearing has been officially encouraged in the West Wing but not mandated. In the East Wing, it is required. Staffers say chief of staff Mark Meadows never wears a mask.
Joe Grogan, former head of the domestic policy council under Trump, said the White House complex is old and typically jam-packed with staffers working 12 to 16 hours a day.
“Things spread like wildfire in the West Wing. It’s the most unhealthy place I have ever worked. People are just sick all the time,” Grogan said.
Olivia Troye, a former member of the coronavirus task force and now an outspoken critic of the White House, said some officials derided the practice of social distancing during meetings.
“They wanted to act like nothing was wrong. Nothing was happening,” Troye said.
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The Washington Post’s Holly Bailey reported from Minneapolis. Amy Gardner, Tom Hamburger and Jonathan O’Connell reported from Washington; Jon Swaine and Sarah Pulliam Bailey reported from New York.