Day in and day out at the White House, President Donald Trump is surrounded by valets, housekeepers, servers, Secret Service, advisers, and other staffers. Covid-19 has been spreading among him and more than 20 people in his close orbit in recent weeks, and their carelessness with a lethal virus has left countless others exposed.
Helen Avalos was one of the housekeepers at Walter Reed medical center tasked with cleaning the president’s suite after he left the hospital on Monday. “Everyone who cleaned his suite was Hispanic, we’re the force of that hospital,” Avalos, who is from El Salvador, told me. “Trump hasn’t been a president who cares about people but instead is a president who cares about the well-being of his family and his wallet.”
In Minnesota, 13 workers at a restaurant that catered a Trump fundraiser have been put into quarantine. In New Jersey, health officials have been tasked with tracking down more than 200 people who attended an event at the president’s Bedminster golf club the same day he tested positive for the virus, including 19 workers.
“I’m concerned about a lot of those people because they don’t have the power, they don’t have the money, some of those cases might just be lost,” said Tara Smith, an epidemiologist at Kent State University.
It’s not known exactly when or how the coronavirus entered the White House — in part because the administration has declined to do serious contact tracing. But many people point to the nomination ceremony held for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett at the Rose Garden (with an indoor reception afterward) on September 26 as a likely starting point and possible superspreader event. On Thursday, Washington, DC’s Department of Health released an open letter to White House staff and other attendees of the event, advising them to get a coronavirus test and contact their local health department for guidance.
If you try to trace out from there who the people in attendance may have come into contact with, it translates to at least 6,000 people across the country, according to an estimate from a USA Today investigation.
“I think the data speak for themselves,” Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in an interview with CBS News Radio on Friday. “We had a superspreader event in the White House, and it was in a situation where people were crowded together, were not wearing masks.”
Essential workers have disproportionately taken on enormous amounts of risk throughout the pandemic. When millions of people were in lockdown, they were the ones keeping the economy going. And now, as economies reopen and life becomes more normal, they’re still the ones more exposed. There’s a difference between the president — who can choose whether to hold a rally, gathering, or fundraiser — and the people who are there to serve and assist him because it is their job.
Every time the president decides to go out with an active coronavirus infection, a team of people is obligated to go along.
The president goes a lot of places, and he brings a lot of people with him
In the days leading up to his Covid-19 diagnosis, the president had a busy schedule. On Friday, September 25, he campaigned in Florida, Georgia, and Virginia; on Saturday, he attended the Coney Barrett events, and on Sunday, the White House hosted an event honoring Gold Star families. (The White House has reportedly told some veterans groups that they could have been exposed to the coronavirus.)
The president also golfed and prepped for debates, including with former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who remains hospitalized with the coronavirus.
And on Monday, he met auto workers at the White House. Tuesday, he attended the first presidential debate, along with multiple members of his family and entourage who reportedly flouted mask requirements in Cleveland. Wednesday, he did a rally and private fundraiser in Minnesota, and Thursday, before announcing his diagnosis, the president went to a fundraiser at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey.
Wherever the president goes, he is generally preceded by an advance team of multiple people who go to set up the area, who make sure everything is in place, and who accompany him around. Many of those people fly commercial, and in Trump’s case have been bouncing from place to place and event to event. For example, the advance press lead likely came into contact with White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, who has tested positive for Covid-19.
“It’s not uncommon for upwards of dozens of staff, military, and Secret Service support to be on the ground well ahead of the president’s arrival,” said a person who has coordinated multiple events for the president and vice president in a prior administration, describing how a typical White House trip would work.
The person, who requested anonymity to speak freely about the matter, said that Trump has a much smaller group of staff than typical administrations, which means, on the one hand, fewer people exposed. But it also means the same people are flipping from task to task (and therefore place to place), and there isn’t really enough staff to switch people out to quarantine if need be. “Those who are close to him he likes to keep close, and it’s a very, very small bubble,” he said.
After the debate in Cleveland, the city said that it traced 11 coronavirus cases to pre-debate planning and setup, most of which were out-of-state residents. The potential web those people may have gone on to infect or put at risk is hard to know. Members of Trump’s team are being tested for the coronavirus regularly, but a negative test does not necessarily mean someone isn’t infected, nor does it mean other precautions, such as social distancing and masks, shouldn’t be taken.
“In a situation … where you’re at a single event and you’re relying on testing as your primary precaution, it’s basically saying you know that you’re going to let in a certain number of people with guns,” said Eleanor Murray, an epidemiologist at Boston University.
Every activity we do involves some level of risk, and there are some activities that an individual may feel are important for them to engage in — say, attend a crowed Supreme Court event and reception at the White House. But ideally, once someone engages in that high-risk event, they try to limit contacts for the next 14 days in case they’ve contracted Covid-19. The White House did the opposite — high-risk event after high-risk event.
“That’s the worst-case scenario, really, because if you get infected at one, you can transmit it to others,” Murray said.
A look at Bedminster
To take just one example of the president’s carelessness: Trump held a fundraiser at his Bedminster golf course the day he was diagnosed with Covid-19.
According to an event invitation obtained by Vox, attendees gave up to $250,000 to attend the fundraiser and gain access to the president. Those in attendance said much of the event was outdoors — a less risky environment — and that the president spoke from a distance. (There was, however, a buffet at the event.) There was an indoor cocktail reception for some attendees, and the top donors got to have dinner with the president. Dr. Rich Roberts, one of those top donors, told the Lakewood Scoop there were about 19 people at the dinner.
Rik Mehta, a Republican running for the Senate against incumbent Cory Booker in New Jersey, told me he attended the outdoor portion of the event and masks were worn “when appropriate.” He doesn’t believe it was a public health risk.
Charlie Kolean, another attendee, said he felt safe attending the indoor VIP reception because he and the other attendees were tested at a drive-through testing site before being allowed into the event. “Everyone who was at the reception and already had a negative test result, you were allowed to take a photo [with the president] one-on-one,” he said.
Oddly enough, the guests who were perhaps most at risk — the people who had dinner with the president — were those who paid the most for the night, $250,000.
The morning after the fundraiser, the Trump Victory Fund, a joint fundraising committee between the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee, emailed attendees notifying them of the president’s diagnosis and telling them to contact a doctor if they feel ill.
In the aftermath of the event, New Jersey health officials and the governor’s office say they have scrambled to try to track down attendees and staff. They were given names and emails of people to contact, but not addresses or phone numbers. Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy accused the president and his staff of being “reckless” in coming to the state, especially after knowing that they had come into contact with Hope Hicks, who had already tested positive for Covid-19. “The actions leading up to and during this event have put lives at risk,” he said.
Mehta told me that he sees Murphy’s complaints as an attempt to get a “platform to attack Trump” and says he doesn’t believe the fundraiser would be discussed at all if it weren’t for the president.
Beyond the attendees, 19 golf club staffers worked at the fundraiser, and it’s not clear if they are quarantining or are back at work, not to mention all of the workers and regular people attendees came into contact with before and after the event.
Kolean flew in from Texas — one of 34 states New Jersey requires people who enter from to quarantine for 14 days. CNBC noted that his Instagram also shows he and another attendee drove into New York City and took videos of themselves out and about in the city without masks. People coming in from Texas are supposed to quarantine in New York, too. Kolean said he had begun self-quarantining once he was back home in Texas. When I asked about his activities in New Jersey beyond the fundraiser and noted the quarantine requirement, he said he didn’t know about the requirement and declined to talk about what else he did.
Roberts, a retired pharmaceutical executive who had dinner with the president at Bedminster, told the Washington Post he assumed the rapid coronavirus test administered before the event was highly accurate and wouldn’t have attended the event if he knew it had a high false-negative rate. He also told the Post it seems just too hard to track the movements of people who came into contact with the president.
“This is not like a linear handoff of a baton,” Roberts told the Post. “This is lots of batons flying in many directions for everyone.”
Lakewood, New Jersey, where Roberts resides, is one of the state’s Covid-19 hot spots.
The cases we’ll never hear about
Trump, who has had access to the best care possible in the US, seems to be on the mend. But that’s not the case for some in his orbit, and truth be told, we’ll probably never know how many people he and those around him have endangered.
On a day with no meetings at all in the White House but maintaining a reasonable schedule, he would likely interact with about 10 valets, house staff, and Oval Office staff, and anywhere from five to 30 Secret Service members, situation room staff, and other staff, according to one person familiar with a typical White House’s inner workings. By one estimate, there are some 300 essential workers in the White House. Then you think of the trips and meetings and fundraisers, and all of the people involved, and the network of possible spread explodes.
One White House staffer told the Atlantic that they found out about the president’s illness through news reports and that the fallout has been a “huge mess.” Andy T. Le, who worked for the Bush-Cheney White House and has done advance for multiple GOP politicians, emphasized that many people around the president don’t have any option but to follow his directions. “If he says, ‘I want to do this,’ [advance and Secret Service] will make it happen,” he said. “You never say no.”
The president, his donors, and his top aides have actively made things worse for the people around them, including workers. They consistently choose not to wear masks, for example, and masks largely protect the infected from spreading the disease, not someone healthy from getting it. In other words, an infected Trump or first lady not wearing a mask can get a healthy, mask-wearing worker sick. If you look at pictures of the Barrett reception, the only people who are wearing masks are workers.
“They’re still exposed to any infection that might be coming at them from people in the government, Trump, etc.,” Murray said.
The White House has reaped what it has sown, but not just for itself. “The Trump White House is just stupid, everything they’re doing is just stupid, and it’s dangerous,” Le said.
And it’s not just the White House that is at issue here. Across the federal government, there are many workers at risk every day and at the whim of the lawmakers and officials they work for in terms of what sorts of precautions they take. According to Ashley Phelps, a Republican spokesperson for the House Administration Committee, at least 120 workers on Capitol Hill have contracted the coronavirus. (Roll Call first reported the data.)
The Capitol Police’s Covid-19 hotline has received nearly 1,500 calls, and it has granted leave to 750 workers for coronavirus-related requests. Capitol Hill has no coherent testing regime for workers. Each congressional office sort of decides how it wants to handle safety protocols — some are working entirely remotely, others entirely in person, some are requiring masks, others aren’t.
“Most of the offices sending full staff in are Republican offices,” one Democratic staffer told me. “There’s a wide range.”
Bonita Williams, 58, is a cleaner at the State Department and has experienced firsthand what it’s like to be an essential worker in a government office where not everyone takes the disease seriously. Many of her coworkers have contracted Covid-19, including one who is in her 80s and was hospitalized for weeks and recently returned to work. As a cleaner, she is required to wear a mask, but the people whose offices she cleans often don’t.
“It’s not that we get [coronavirus] from each other, it’s that we get it from the people in the office,” Williams, a member of the 32BJ SEIU local union, said. “You go in there, clean the office, they don’t have on masks, and they don’t tell us, because we’re the cleaners, we’re the last to know anything and everything about the building.”
After she and other cleaners asked people to put their trash outside of their offices so they wouldn’t have to go in, she recalls one man becoming very upset at the idea of moving the bin himself. She told one of her coworkers, “Don’t worry about them getting mad. You go in there, you could get Covid.”
The president’s coronavirus case may be the one that’s leading headlines right now, but it shouldn’t overshadow how many other cases he may have been responsible for and how many people his behavior puts at risk. And it’s not just the workers he and his aides have endangered over the past couple of weeks, it’s everyone else, too.
“He should have done a better job in dealing with this virus, the coronavirus, and not only that, he should have done a better job in telling people to wear masks,” Williams said. The president could have stayed home when he realized he might be infected, and he can certainly continue to stay home now. Millions of workers across the country don’t have that same choice. “If we don’t work, we don’t get paid,” Williams said.
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