When guests arrived to the White House last Saturday for a triumphant event unveiling President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, their first stop was a small room in the White House basement.
After providing their names, phone numbers and dates of birth, each was taken one-by-one by a staff member from the White House Medical Office to a smaller room nearby. The door was shut, and out came the swab.
One swirl in the right nostril, one swirl in the left. As their names were written on a paper sleeve to contain the sample, they were told: “No news is good news.”
So began what is now believed by many White House officials to be a nexus for contagion that resulted Friday in the positive tests of at least seven attendees, including the President himself, who is hospitalized in Maryland.
It is not known how or when Trump caught the infection that resulted in a positive test unveiled after midnight on Friday. But the string of people who attended last Saturday’s event – where few guests wore masks and social distancing was absent – was growing.
On Friday, Republican Sens. Mike Lee and Thom Tillis both said they had tested positive. They sat three seats apart in the second row during the ceremony, separated by other senators.
The President’s former counselor Kellyanne Conway said she, too, had become infected. She was seated directly behind the first lady.
The president of Notre Dame, where Trump’s nominee Amy Coney Barrett teaches, was also diagnosed with coronavirus. He sat three seats away from Conway – right behind the nominees’ young children.
That is in addition to the President, the first lady and senior adviser Hope Hicks, all of whom tested positive last week.
Others who are close to the White House but did not attend Saturday’s event also announced positive tests, including Republican National Committee chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, who had spent time with the President at the end of last week, and Trump’s campaign manager Bill Stepien, who participated in mask-less debate preparatory sessions at the White House last weekend. So did former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who also helped Trump prepare for the debate.
On Saturday, Sen. Ron Johnson became the third Republican senator after Lee and Tillis to test positive – but he did not attend the ceremony on Saturday. Three members of the White House press corps also tested positive, according to the White House Correspondents Association.
The ceremony in the Rose Garden – and Trump’s Supreme Court nomination more broadly – were once viewed as the President’s best last chance to supplant coronavirus as this election’s dominant theme. Instead, the tightly packed ceremony became the best illustration to date of the White House’s own mismanagement of the crisis, including shrugging off best health practices and openly flouting the mitigation recommendations offered by his own government.
The health crisis at the top of the American government has entirely obscured the Supreme Court pick, though Republicans and the White House remain intent on holding hearings and a confirmation vote before Election Day.
But if the three GOP senators who announced positive tests over the past 24 hours remain out of commission this month, it could effectively prevent Barrett from being confirmed to the Supreme Court until they return, which could be a lame-duck session.
Aides say Trump’s resistance to measures like social distancing and mask wearing comes down mostly to optics. Trump has mocked the look of masks on journalists and his rival Joe Biden, and has lampooned Biden campaign events where attendees are socially distanced. His mindset has clearly transferred to those closest to him; during last week’s presidential debate in Cleveland, members of his family were seen waving off masks offered to them by staffers.
In conversations with advisers, Trump has suggested that masked, socially distanced events would project weakness against the pandemic and could contradict his claims the outbreak is “rounding the corner.”
He was particularly attuned to the look of his Rose Garden ceremony last weekend. When he saw television footage two weeks ago of Bill Clinton nominating Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the Supreme Court, he was taken with all of the flags in the Rose Garden and instructed aides to replicate the look.
By then, he had already selected Barrett as his nominee. He offered her the role on Monday, September 21, after meeting in the Oval Office. Aides began working almost immediately to produce the late afternoon ceremony five days later.
The precautions – or lack thereof
The idea of holding a scaled down ceremony, with fewer guests to accommodate social distancing, was never broached with the President, according to a person familiar with the matter, since it was automatically assumed the idea would be rejected out of hand.
Instead, invitations went out to a who’s who of conservative Washington, including the President’s top allies in Congress, religious leaders, Trump-allied operatives and members of the Cabinet.
Barrett’s entire family – including her husband and seven children – were flown on a military plane from their home in South Bend, Indiana, to attend the event. Ahead of the ceremony, they all packed into the Oval Office to meet with the President, first lady, Vice President Mike Pence and his wife Karen.
Elsewhere at the White House, guests were arriving through another entrance. At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the White House instituted temperature checks at security checkpoints, but those were ended months ago.
Instead, guests were led to a makeshift testing site set up by the Medical Office, which operates out a a small suite of offices in the White House basement next to the Map Room and across the hall from the kitchen.
“When I arrived at the White House, a medical professional took me to an exam room to obtain a nasal swab for a rapid Covid-19 test,” wrote Rev. John Jenkins, the Notre Dame president who tested positive last week, in a letter to the campus. “I was then directed to a room with others, all fully masked, until we were notified that we had all tested negative and were told that it was safe to remove our masks. We were then escorted to the Rose Garden, where I was seated with others who also had just been tested and received negative results.”
His account is testament to the White House’s reliance on an extensive testing regimen that experts have said is far from foolproof.
The system the White House uses, the Abbott Laboratories rapid test, has a higher false negative rate than other diagnostic tools that sometimes take longer to produce results.
And even those who test negative still have the potential to spread the disease. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says asymptomatic contacts who test negative should still self-quarantine for 14 days from their last exposure to someone with Covid-19. People who are asymptomatic or who have not yet developed symptoms are able to transmit the virus.
Symptoms can appear within two to 14 days of exposure; symptoms most often develop with four to five days, and early mild symptoms can become more serious.
So when the White House advised Jenkins and other guests it was safe to remove their masks, it stood in direct opposition to public health advice that has been offered to Americans for months.
So, too, did the close quarters defy recommendations for social distancing. Before guests headed to the Rose Garden, some attended gatherings inside the White House reception rooms where social distancing was not practiced – including with hugs and handshakes.
Seats for guests in the Rose Garden did not appear spaced apart the recommended six feet. And throughout the ceremony, only a very small number of attendees were seen wearing masks – including a woman wearing a full plastic face shield.
Alex Azar, the head of the Health and Human Services Department, put on a mask at one point during Trump’s speech. But as he left the ceremony, the nation’s top health official fist-bumped without a mask on – going against the health recommendations he has espoused during the pandemic. Azar has repeatedly encouraged Americans to wear a facial covering and to practice social distancing. His office said he tested negative on Friday.
Top administration officials, including Attorney General William Barr and Dr. Scott Atlas, a neuroradiologist who is the latest addition to the White House coronavirus task force, were also seen without masks, shaking hands and interacting closely with other attendees.
Lee, the Utah Republican who tested positive last week, was seen speaking to another guest with his mask in his hand.
Ahead of the event, White House spokesman Judd Deere told CNN that anyone in close proximity to the President would be tested for Covid-19, and that there would be social distancing measures – though those were not in evidence when the event actually occurred.
And two of Barrett’s colleagues at Notre Dame who attended the Rose Garden event and were seated toward the front of the audience said they were not tested for the virus by the White House. The two guests also told CNN that there was no mention from the White House of coronavirus testing as a requirement to attend in any of the logistical emails they received ahead of time.
The Rose Garden ceremony was not unique in Trump’s schedule. None of the events he attended in the days before or after required masks, and all relied on the testing plan the White House officials have repeatedly insisted would protect the President from catching coronavirus.
At events in Florida, Georgia, Washington and Virginia the Friday before the announcement, Trump interacted with mask-less officials and donors, most of whom had been tested but who nonetheless could still have been contagious.
The day after, Trump participated in debate preparatory sessions inside the White House Map Room with Stepien, Conway and others, including Christie and his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani.
It remains unclear how many more guests from the Rose Garden might test positive, and a number – including Barr and some other members of Trump’s family – said Friday they had negative results.
One individual who seemed safe was Barrett herself. She was diagnosed with coronavirus late this summer but has since recovered, according to three sources familiar with the matter.