“Jennifer Jacobs owns the White House covid beat,” said ABC chief White House correspondent Jonathan Karl. “She seems to know the test results of the president’s inner circle before just about anybody else on the White House staff knows. It’s really remarkable.”
It’s an only-in-2020 beat, covering the health emergencies of White House officials, many of whom have bucked their own administration’s public safety recommendations, such as mask-wearing, as the virus has spread within one of the world’s most secure office spaces.
Months before the Hicks diagnosis, Jacobs broke the news that Robert C. O’Brien, Trump’s national security adviser, had tested positive, and before that, that Vice President Pence was self-isolating after an aide was diagnosed with the coronavirus.
But it was her bombshell reporting on Hicks, an aide who may spend more time than any other staffer with Trump, that highlighted the White House as a potential covid-19 hot spot.
On Oct. 1, at 8:09 p.m., she tweeted that Hicks, who had traveled aboard Air Force One for the first presidential debate and a rally in Minnesota, tested positive. The resulting story by Jacobs and fellow Bloomberg News correspondent Jordan Fabian revealed that Hicks first felt ill while in Minnesota for the rally and quarantined while returning home on Air Force One.
“White House officials had hoped to keep the news about Ms. Hicks from becoming public, to no avail,” the New York Times reported at the time. Shortly after the Bloomberg News story broke, Trump acknowledged during an interview on Fox News that he was awaiting his own test result.
Hours later, the president revealed he had tested positive, a stunning and destabilizing development that had officials discussing the continuity of governance should his condition worsen. Positive diagnoses were also made public about people who had spent time with Trump or at the White House, including several Republican senators, first lady Melania Trump, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, former New Jersey governor Chris Christie and others.
But if not for Jacobs cracking that initial story about Hicks, prompting a wave of questions about the president’s health, “the world might still be in the dark about the sickness sweeping through the West Wing and the highest levels of our government,” New York magazine’s Olivia Nuzzi suggested.
In late October, Jacobs and fellow Bloomberg News reporter Tyler Pager broke the news that one of Pence’s closest political advisers, Marty Obst, had tested positive. Then three days after Election Day — as the president continued to insist he won the election — Jacobs, Pager and Bloomberg News reporter Mario Parker revealed the positive test result for Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, who had attended a large indoor White House election night party where few wore masks. On Nov. 9, Jacobs reported that Trump adviser David Bossie was infected, and she revealed on Nov. 19 that a top Pentagon official, retired Brig. Gen. Anthony Tata, had tested positive and was “likely infected” by visiting officials from the Lithuanian Embassy.
Bloomberg News and Jacobs declined to comment for this story.
White House reporters have taken to warning that anyone in the administration with coronavirus should expect Jacobs to find out, and that “she may know before you do.”
“I’m not going to bother going to a clinic next time I think I may have Covid,” Wall Street Journal reporter Michael Bender quipped on Twitter. “I’m just going to have [Jacobs] tell me if I’m positive or not. One helluva run you’re on, JJ.”
Jacobs, an Iowa native, came to Bloomberg News as a senior political reporter in March 2016 after 12 years at the Des Moines Register, where she was the chief politics reporter and had covered the Iowa Senate and Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign. Trump has alternatively referred to Jacobs unfavorably — “she is the worst,” he said in 2015 — and fondly. “You know how much I liked her when I first met her, then she started to kill me,” Trump said during a 2018 sit-down with Jacobs and other Bloomberg News reporters, in which he called her “my Jennifer.” After she joined Bloomberg News, she had been viewed as one of “Trump’s favored reporter[s],” one who is deeply sourced with Trump’s world.
“He’s been mad at me on and off,” Jacobs told the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier in Iowa in 2019. “He’ll be critical of some of my reporting and freeze me out for a period of time. There’s this zigzag, yo-yo effect, where I’m never sure if he’s happy to see me or mad. He can get very sensitive, very thin-skinned.”
She made headlines in February after the Trump campaign kicked her out of an Iowa event, in light of Bloomberg News’s editorial decision to not investigate founder Mike Bloomberg or his Democratic rivals during the 2020 campaign.
“She’s been the source of a lot of scoops in the Trump era, so it’s not at all surprising that she would continue to generate that on covid-19,” said one veteran White House reporter.
Beyond informing people who have been in and near the White House — including her fellow reporters — to the possibility they have been exposed to a deadly virus, these stories have also revealed how the administration has tried to keep outbreaks secret, even as the president projected confidence that the country was “rounding the turn” on the pandemic.
The Bloomberg News story about Meadows focused on how some campaign and White House aides were frustrated that the chief of staff didn’t issue a statement about his diagnosis, and thus his infection wasn’t “widely known across Trump’s staff until late Friday, when Bloomberg News reported it,” three days after he tested positive. “A small circle of people were aware earlier in the week that Meadows had become infected but were told to keep it quiet, several people said.”
The White House has continually insisted that it has followed guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regarding essential workers and contact tracing among those considered a “close contact” with an infected person. “Any positive case is taken very seriously, which is why the White House Medical Unit leads a robust contact-tracing program with CDC personnel and guidance to stop ongoing transmission,” White House spokesman Judd Deere told The Washington Post in October.
Still, journalists and others have called on the administration for greater transparency regarding the reach of the virus within the top levels of government.
“This is information the White House should have been disclosing, when people around the president test positive and people who spend time around reporters test positive,” Karl said. “Instead the world has frequently found out because of a Jennifer Jacobs scoop. She’s done a service.”