Several White House officials told CNN they had developed a sense of security at the highly secure complex because they and their colleagues are regularly tested at work for coronavirus — confidence they later said was undermined when two people who interact closely with Trump and Vice President Mike Pence tested positive.
A week after two positive tests in the West Wing sent aides scrambling to identify who might have interacted with the infected and determine where they may have been exposed, no additional members of the President’s team are known to have tested positive. But beneath the surface, it is anything from normal at the White House, where large swaths of the staff still work from home and the remainder arrive daily to a building where the discovery of coronavirus last week had a sobering effect.
This week, the White House was a workplace transformed. Staffers now must wear masks inside the West Wing unless seated at their desks and appropriately distanced from their colleagues — a mandate Trump says he made himself.
And in recent days, some officials have become concerned about the accuracy of the tests they’re receiving now that the Food and Drug Administration has cautioned the public about their reliability.
The concerns didn’t prevent Trump from decamping again this weekend with a group of GOP lawmakers to the wooded cabins in the Catoctin mountains, where he said he’ll be convening “very successful meetings.”
Trump’s new weekends away
The US Secret Service signaled this week that Trump could be heading to his Bedminster, New Jersey, club at some point this summer by signing a $179,000 contract for golf carts and other vehicles. But no trips were currently on the horizon.
Instead, Trump seems confined for now to the White House and his retreat in the Maryland mountains, which he’s previously complained is a little rustic for his taste.
As he has throughout the crisis, Trump this week sought to accentuate the positive and signal a return to normalcy is just around the corner. He continued his travels into the country by visiting another state that will prove critical to his election prospects, Pennsylvania, and was described as buoyant on the way home. And he recommenced certain facets of his version of a normal presidency: fomenting false conspiracies about his predecessor and rebuking sitting members of his administration (in this instance, the target was Dr. Anthony Fauci).
Some of the President’s aides — including chief of staff Mark Meadows and senior advisers Jared Kushner and Hope Hicks — have suggested the weekend trips to Camp David offer Trump a presidential air as he continues to confront the virus and looks to adopt a wartime mantle. Some other aides believe Camp David provides a more structured setting for Trump’s weekends, which can sometimes devolve into tweet- and cable news spirals that leave the President angry and unfocused.
Last weekend, the President was scheduled to visit Camp David with the Joint Chiefs of Staff before news emerged that two West Wing staffers had tested positive for coronavirus. The trip was canceled partly due to the virus situation, but also because high winds would have made it difficult to fly there in a helicopter.
Instead, Trump remained at the White House for Mother’s Day, where he unleashed more than 100 tweets and retweets including accusing his predecessor Barack Obama of crimes.
Surrounded by GOP allies
This weekend, Trump is joined by some of his top Republican allies in the House of Representatives, including many who were his loudest defenders during the impeachment proceedings earlier this year. The roster included Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Reps. Jim Jordan of Ohio, Elise Stefanik and Lee Zeldin of New York, Devin Nunes of California, and Matt Gaetz of Florida, along with Meadows and his wife Debbie.
Trump said as he departed the White House a number of items would be on his agenda, including a series of meetings.
“We will have a lot of discussions,” Trump said, “some military and some other than military. We’ll probably report back on it on Monday.”
As is now routine, the lawmakers joining Trump in the mountains were tested for coronavirus before making the two-hour trek outside Washington. But they left behind aides wondering how accurate those tests really are and whether Camp David’s cozy cabins and lodges could facilitate the type of distancing still recommended by the government.
Unease over safety in the West Wing persists, even as large blue signs appeared at entrances this week encouraging social distancing and nearly everyone started wearing a mask. Among the officials spotted this week with their noses and mouths covered were Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who wore a black cloth mask; Kushner, who was spotted in a disposable blue one; Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who alighted from his airplane in Israel wearing a mask emblazoned with stars and stripes; and Ivanka Trump, who wore a black mask with an American flag pinned to it.
Trump himself remains to be seen in public wearing a mask, a step he’s said privately might undermine confidence the nation is ready to emerge from the crisis. But even a troop of Girl Scouts he honored on Friday afternoon in the Rose Garden wore masks. And Pence, who ordinarily follows Trump’s lead, has taken to wearing one at the White House, including in the Situation Room as he videoconferenced with education leaders.
After his press secretary tested positive for the virus last week, Pence has maintained his distance from Trump and even remained at his Naval Observatory residence one day this week without coming into the office. The two men have spoken by phone, but Trump said on Wednesday he would like to resume seeing Pence in person.
“I haven’t seen Mike Pence and I miss him,” Trump said.
Not helping ease anxieties was news this week that the rapid test used on Trump, Pence, their aides and everyone else who comes into close proximity could be producing false negative results as much as half the time, a development that led the FDA on Thursday to issue new guidance on using it.
Aides who were tested using the Abbott product later wondered whether their results were accurate — or whether Trump and Pence should rely on a diagnostic about which the FDA is issuing warnings.
“We’re providing guidance to the White House regarding this test,” the FDA commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn told CBS on Friday. “We have been on an ongoing basis and we will continue to do that. This will be a White House decision.”
Trump himself appeared unconcerned that the Abbott Laboratories test he’s taken daily — and extolled as a key development in the nationwide battle against the virus — could be faulty.
“No, Abbott’s a great test. It’s a very quick test and it can also be very rapidly double-checked,” he said in the Rose Garden on Friday. “If you’re testing positive or negative, it can always be double-checked.”
But as Trump has expressed many times before, the advantage of the Abbott test is the speed at which results are known — making it ideal for a busy workplace like the White House, where dozens of tests are conducted daily for the aides, Secret Service agents, residence staffers and others who come into contact with the President.
Kellyanne Conway, the President’s counselor, told reporters on Friday the Abbott test wasn’t the only one in use at the White House, but declined to detail which others were available.
Instead, she said she was dutifully wearing a mask around the President — and was willing to take it a step further if it meant preventing him from contracting the virus.
“I, myself, I’m not prepared for an acting President or a President Pelosi, so I’ll wear a hazmat suit — you know, red and ruffled and belted, but a hazmat suit — with the President and Vice President if I need to avoid that unfortunate occurrence,” she said.