Inside an eerily quiet White House Friday morning, a barebones staff scrambled to contain the fallout from a nightmare scenario: President Donald Trump and his wife Melania hobbled by the coronavirus in the final weeks of the 2020 campaign.
Trump, quarantined in the private residence with his wife, spent the morning calling key senators and consulting in-house doctors about his symptoms, while Vice President Mike Pence remained at home awaiting instructions on how to proceed.
As the president’s diagnosis ricocheted through the West Wing, daily meetings were converted to conference calls and White House officials were advised not to come in. Among those who arrived at work anyway, many wore masks as they moved around the executive complex — adopting a preventative measure they previously dismissed.
At the Trump campaign’s headquarters in the Washington suburbs, staffers who were in close proximity to the first family at the presidential debate earlier this week nevertheless reported for work. Some ended up staying, while others left.
“There’s a pretty good number of people here,” said one senior campaign official working from the Arlington, Va., campaign office Friday morning.
Campaign officials and Trump aides who were contacted by the White House Medical Unit as part of contact tracing measures were asked to report for testing early Friday afternoon, while others who believed they may have been at risk of exposure were left to procure coronavirus tests on their own.
The Friday morning confusion was largely reflective of the haphazard protocols White House officials have grown accustomed to in the last few months, as the president has crisscrossed the U.S. to rally with thousands of maskless supporters and used the executive complex to host large ceremonies flaunting social distancing guidelines. Some officials expressed concern about the startling lack of contingency planning, particularly after witnessing the scramble that ensued earlier this summer when Pence spokesperson Katie Miller, who is married to the president’s top policy adviser, tested positive immediately after traveling with the vice president and interacting with other staffers.
Trump may have contracted the virus after interacting with his aide Hope Hicks, a top White House communications official who tested positive Wednesday night. But it has since come out that people present at other Trump events over the last week, including a Rose Garden ceremony on Saturday introducing Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, also tested positive for Covid-19.
As White House officials and campaign advisers spent Friday working to design a message and overhaul their plans for the remaining month before the November election, television appearances were canceled and campaign events postponed. Trump was notably silent on Twitter.
One Republican close to the Trump campaign said aides were expected to hold a meeting Friday afternoon to begin planning the president’s schedule in light of the new limitations, which could severely impact both official events — including Oval Office signing ceremonies and Rose Garden speeches — and campaign appearances that Trump had planned for the coming weeks.
Prior to his positive test, Trump had been using the White House for large, celebratory set-piece events, such as his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention and a commemorative ceremony for a peace accord between Israel and two Middle Eastern countries.
“The president has to keep a minimal schedule and see how he feels,” this person said, adding that “it’s way too early to be able to tell” whether Trump will be able to participate in virtual campaign events or the second presidential debate, which is set to take place Oct. 15 in Miami.
It’s possible Trump will resort to the kinds of campaign activities he participated in before he returned to the campaign trail in June for outdoor rallies and smaller coalition gatherings. White House officials who have previously tested positive for the virus have been asked to self-isolate for 14 days and receive two negative test results before returning to work. But current and former White House officials said they hope the president can remain active in some capacity during that period.
“We talked a number of times this morning,” White House chief of staff Mark Meadows told reporters Friday morning, declining to discuss what kind of treatment Trump may be receiving. “I got the five or six things that he had tasked me to do, like I do every single morning. He is certainly wanting to make sure we stay engaged.”
Meadow’s predecessor, former White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, urged the president to remain in the public eye in the coming days.
“I think it’s important … the president be visible … that he’d be on the phone, that he’d be on television, that he gets out on the Truman balcony, if he can,” Mulvaney said during an appearance on Fox News. “I’m not too concerned about his health, I’m just concerned about the perception.”
Several of the president’s top aides who traveled with him to Cleveland for Tuesday’s presidential debate against Democratic nominee Joe Biden or attended his rally in Duluth, Minn., on Wednesday tested negative after learning of their boss’s results. Meadows said he and other senior officials, including the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and White House deputy chief of staff for communications Dan Scavino, were given the all-clear Friday morning.
“At the same time, I fully expect that as this virus continues to go on other people in the White House will certainly have a positive test result and we’ve got the mitigation plan in place to make sure the government not only continues to move forward but the work of the American people continues to move forward,” Meadows said.
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