On the day the U.S. death toll from coronavirus topped 80,000, U.S. President Donald Trump stood in the White House Rose Garden for a “mission accomplished” moment.
Behind Trump were a row of American flags and a pair of giant signs reading, in all capital letters: “America leads the world in testing,” referring to the total number of U.S. tests conducted in recent months rather than per-capita testing, in which America does not lead the world. In front of Trump sat his staff and reporters, physically distanced and all wearing face masks under an edict the president said he issued Monday afternoon to control the spread of coronavirus within the West Wing.
At an event carefully crafted to reassure businesses and governors they could safely restart a crippled economy, Trump declared America had accomplished its mission on coronavirus testing.
“In every generation, through every challenge and hardship and danger, America has risen to the task,” Trump said. “We have met the moment and we have prevailed.”
It was a pronouncement incongruous with the widespread anxiety among employers across America about whether enough testing exists to reopen their workplaces. It was also incongruous with the internal turmoil spreading on Monday inside the West Wing, where officials were scrambling to prevent the virus from crippling the most famous and supposedly safest office in America — one that already featured ample testing capacity for anyone who meets with Trump or Vice President Mike Pence.
The White House Management Office issued a memo that afternoon requiring West Wing staffers to wear masks or other facial coverings at all times in the building, except at their own desks. Additional new procedures include daily testing for the majority of West Wing staff and additional teleworking depending on the office, according to two senior administration officials.
The White House escalated its measures to keep the president and vice president safe from the coronavirus after two aides tested positive for Covid-19 in the past week. It marked a dramatic shift amid a national culture war over mask-wearing and a reluctant acceptance of a federal recommendation issued more than a month ago.
At the Rose Garden briefing on testing, every seated White House staffer including the president’s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner wore masks — a change from even late last week.
Under questioning from reporters, Trump later clarified that he meant the U.S. had prevailed only in creating enough tests for Americans — not that it had tamed the virus, which is expected to kill tens of thousands more Americans in the coming months.
“You never prevail when you have 90,000 people, 100,000 people, when you have 80,000 people as of today, when you have the kind of death you are talking about, when you have potentially millions of people throughout the world that are dying,” Trump said. “That’s not prevailing. What I’m talking about is we have a great testing capacity now. It’s getting even better. There is nobody close to us in the world, and we certainly have done a great job on testing.”
White House aides are deeply aware the president’s message urging states to reopen their economies does not mesh with the optics of the virus spreading throughout the West Wing.
Even beyond the threat the virus could pose to the health of both Trump and Pence, aides recognized that new infections inside the White House will only mar the president’s cheerleading on the economic front and his efforts to revive the national mood ahead of the November election.
“The president’s physician and White House Operations continue to work closely to ensure every precaution is taken to keep the President, First Family and the entire White House Complex safe and healthy at all times,” White House deputy press secretary Judd Deere said of the new procedures. “In addition to social distancing, face coverings, daily temperature checks and symptom histories, hand sanitizer, and regular deep cleaning of all workspaces, every staff member in close proximity to the president and vice president is being tested daily for COVID-19 as well as any guests.”
One White House aide said staffers are being more cautious and trying to do as many meetings as possible by phone, three days after Pence’s top spokesperson tested positive for the coronavirus and the vice president himself spent the weekend at home.
Pence’s only public event on Monday was a teleconference with governors, and as of now he has no travel publicly scheduled for this week. He did not appear alongside the president at the briefing as he usually does when not traveling.
The new White House memo on masks marked a turning point for the Trump administration.
Trump, Pence and top officials all traveled within the past week without wearing face coverings, even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in April urged Americans to start wearing masks in close quarters in grocery stores or pharmacies and in areas with high levels of transmission.
Pence did not wear a mask on his recent visit to the Mayo Clinic, though he later said he regretted that move, Trump’s aides and advisers said it was doubtful Trump would start wearing a mask — both because he views it as a political liability and because staffers around him are tested daily.
The president last month said he could not envision himself in a mask at all. “I just don’t want to be doing, somehow sitting in the Oval Office behind that beautiful Resolute Desk, the great Resolute Desk, I think wearing a face mask as I greet presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings, queens, I don’t know, somehow, I don’t see it for myself. I just don’t. Maybe I’ll change my mind,” Trump said in early April.
Until now, different offices in the White House complex have also been handling the threat of the virus in wildly different ways.
Trump’s deputy national security adviser Matt Pottinger has worn a mask inside the White House complex for weeks, sometimes facing eye-rolls from his colleagues. The first lady’s staff also has been consistently wearing masks, keeping their distance from her and largely teleworking.
“Everybody’s working from home, and if I go in there for any meetings, I’m tested every single day,” Stephanie Grisham, the first lady’s chief of staff said during an appearance on Fox News. “If we do meet with her, you know, we sit 6 feet apart. If you haven’t been tested, you wear a mask. And then even when we’ve done the videos, it’s a very, very small footprint in terms of staff and video crew. That’s very important to her. She’s also reduced the number of resident staff, and they all wear masks, as well.”
Trump’s top three health officials are all self-quarantining and doing meetings remotely after they came into contact with an infected person last week at a coronavirus task force meeting. One of the president’s military valets and Katie Miller, Pence’s top spokesperson, both tested positive for the virus last week. Miller is married to Stephen Miller, one of the president’s closest aides, who is also avoiding the White House.
Maintaining 6 feet from others is virtually impossible in the West Wing, with its cramped hallways and stairwells, low ceilings and cubicles, so aides now must keep masks with them at all times.
The seven people who work for second lady Karen Pence have been teleworking since mid-March, as well as two staffers who work for the vice president’s residence, according to a spokesperson for Karen Pence. Karen Pence’s staffers usually work from the Eisenhower Executive Office Building and from an office in the Naval Observatory.
The staffing and work hours for naval aides, who prepare meals and maintain Pence’s residence, were reduced in mid-March, according to the spokesperson. The naval employees at the Naval Observatory have also been following Defense Department guidelines, which require staff to wear masks on military bases.
Pence arrived at the White House on Monday after remaining at home all weekend, but instead of heading into the West Wing, he worked during the early part of the day out of an office he keeps in the adjacent Eisenhower Executive Office Building. A spokesperson said Pence was eager to start traveling again soon.
“We are taking the advice of the White House Medical Office. There are no announcements to make on travel, but the VP is looking forward to getting back out there to show the American people what we can do when we come together,” said Devin O’Malley, one of Pence’s spokespeople.
The president is expected to go to Pennsylvania later this week.
In addition to new mask requirement, some health experts would like to see the White House rely on a different method of testing to keep its staff and top officials safe.
The White House has relied on a point-of-care coronavirus test made by Abbott Laboratories that can deliver results in under 15 minutes, but it drew fire from Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, last week for having too high of a false negative rate. The company says the test performs as expected when samples are directly tested instead of transported in chemicals — but some health experts say other rapid tests that take longer to run should be used by the White House.
David Lim, Daniel Lippman and Gabby Orr contributed to this report.
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