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 spent the morning quarantined in the residence with his wife, calling key senators and consulting in-house doctors about his symptoms, which included fatigue and cold-like congestion, according to a senior administration official. But he remained silent publicly throughout the morning and afternoon, causing some concern. And by Friday evening, he was being transferred to Walter Reed hospital for the coming days “out of an abundance of caution,” according to the White House.
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. Vice President Mike Pence, who would take over for the president if he becomes incapacitated, remained at home but soon announced he would resume his campaign schedule after testing negative.
At the Trump campaign’s headquarters in the Washington suburbs, a morning meeting was canceled and aides were advised by Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien to stay home if they felt they may have been exposed to the virus themselves. Some staffers who were in close proximity to the first family at the presidential debate earlier this week nevertheless reported for work, while others left the office shortly after receiving Stepien’s memo.
“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 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.
“I wish I could tell you they have this good protocol that’s been in play for months, but it seems to ramp up and down with whatever’s going on politically,” said a person familiar with the White House approach to Covid-19 safety measures.
The White House had relaxed its coronavirus precautions in recent months with aides frequently not wearing masks and visitors no longer getting a temperature check before being allowed in the building. While everyone in close proximity to Trump receives a Covid test, others in the complex only receive it on a random basis.
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 is also possible he became infected last Saturday while hosting a Rose Garden ceremony to introduce Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett or in the days leading up to the first debate.
At least two people who attended the Saturday event for Barrett — Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and University of Notre Dame President John Jenkins — have since tested positive. Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel, who traveled with the president to Michigan last week, has also tested positive.
“It looks like the campaign and party can’t seem to get its act together and they appear to be crashing through the finish line,” according to a person close to the White House.
As White House officials and campaign advisers spent Friday working to design a message and overhaul their plans for the 32 days that remain until the November election, television appearances were canceled and campaign events postponed. 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.
Friday afternoon, Trump campaign aides began planning the president’s schedule in light of the new limitations, which will 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.
The White House late Friday said Trump would be “working from the presidential offices at Walter Reed.”
At times during the day, a sense of gloom began to sit as some wondered what else could happen after a year of bad news that saw a global pandemic, a recession and nationwide protests against police brutality.
“Only in the Trump world,” said a Republican close to the president. “Every boulder is thrown at him.”
Trump was also notably silent on Twitter, causing some in the White House and campaign to wonder if he was more sick than advertised.
Nonetheless, Trump allies were bullish on the prospect of Trump eventually headlining the kinds of online campaign activities, including virtual town halls and fundraisers, that he participated in at the start of the pandemic. And if he is feeling well in two weeks, those around Trump expect him to hit the campaign trail again and participate in the remaining two presidential debates. The Republican close to the president and a Trump friend said they didn’t expect Trump would agree to participate in a virtual debate.
The Trump campaign only said that campaign events for the next week in Wisconsin, California, Arizona, Nevada and Pennsylvania are postponed.
“It’s all in flux,” said the Republican close to the president. “But you have to keep fighting the fight.”
The person said it might not be so bad if Trump is off the road for a couple weeks, because he won’t say anything controversial at a rally. Conversely, though, “My fear is that he’s alone with a Twitter feed,” the person said.
While Pence is expected to resume his travel plans for campaign-related events, the vice president plans to strike a balance in an effort not to upstage Trump or make it appear he isn’t governing, the Trump friend said: “In the cast of the Trump movie, there is only one star.”
On Friday afternoon, the vice president replaced Trump to host a White House call about the pandemic with vulnerable seniors. Pence said Trump had asked him to lead the call, according to the senior administration official.
The Trump campaign had hoped to use Friday’s jobs reports to switch from his much-criticized performance at Tuesday’s debate to the economy. But instead the country was abuzz with Trump’s news as the U.S. added 661,000 just jobs in September, well below expectations of 1 million.
“We had a really good September and some good momentum, I don’t know if the president’s diagnosis makes it better or worse, but this pauses some of the momentum, we’ll have to see how voters react to this,” said a Republican close to the Trump campaign.
The Trump friend insisted the president still has a chance to turn the campaign around — showing he can personally fight coronavirus, push through Barrett’s confirmation and perhaps secure a coronavirus stimulus package, admittedly a “tall task,” the person conceded.
“The president has to keep a minimal schedule and see how he feels,” said a second Republican close to the campaign, who added that “it’s way too early to be able to tell” whether Trump will be able to participate in the second presidential debate, which is set to take place Oct. 15 in Miami.
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 his period of isolation.
White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and several senators Trump is close to proactively mentioned that they had talked to the president on Friday and described how engaged he was.
While there are lingering fears that more cases could crop up around the president, several of the president’s top aides who traveled with him to Cleveland for Tuesday’s debate or attended his rally in Duluth, Minn., on Wednesday tested negative after learning of their boss’s results. The rest of the president’s family also tested negative. Similarly, Meadows said he and other senior officials, including White House deputy chief of staff for communications Dan Scavino, also got negative test results Friday morning.
“At the same time,” Meadows said, “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.”