President Trump suggested he contracted the coronavirus from families of fallen service members at a White House event, but the president didn’t offer any proof from contact tracing or genetic analysis and the White House later backed away from his remarks amid criticism.
Trump’s singling out of the Gold Star family event as the source of his illness — even though far more people who attended the Barrett reception the prior day so far have publicly said they tested positive for the coronavirus — marked an effort to cast his coronavirus infection as the result of selfless presidential service to grieving military families rather than his own disregard for health precautions.
The president has regularly refused to wear a mask, encouraging others at the White House not to wear them, and made fun of Democratic challenger Joe Biden for wearing one during a debate days before the president’s diagnosis became public.
So far, none of the Gold Star family attendees appear to have publicly reported coming down with covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, in the days since the event. Two organizations that nominated families to attend the ceremony said none of their guests had any symptoms. The Washington Post, however, was unable to contact all the attendees.
In his interview Thursday with Fox Business, Trump said he didn’t want to cancel the Gold Star families event, as he recalled how each family came up to him and first lady Melania Trump at the White House and shared stories about the service members they lost.
“They tell me these stories, and I can’t say, ‘Back up, stand 10 feet, I just can’t do it,’ ” Trump said. “And I went through like 35 people and everyone had a different story.”
Trump said the families were talking about loved ones they lost in Iraq and Afghanistan and in certain instances came “within an inch of my face.”
Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, called on Trump to apologize for blaming military families who lost loved ones for giving him the virus.
“That is a shocking statement even for this President. He must immediately apologize,” Reed said in a statement. “Failure to do so would be yet another example of his callous disregard and disrespect for the women and men of our Armed Forces who we ask to stand in harm’s way.”
Reed said instead of casting aspersions on military families, the president should be transparent about his own actions and say who he met with and when to do “real contact tracing.”
“Instead, President Trump is continuing his pattern of irresponsible behavior,” Reed said. “Military families know how to follow orders. They’d be the first to wear a mask if asked. Stop blaming, deflecting, and denying, Mr. President, and start leading.”
Speaking to reporters later Thursday, White House communications director Alyssa Farah said the president was “by no means” blaming anyone who was present at the event for his coronavirus infection.
“And we did take a lot of precautions for that event,” Farah said. “So based on contact tracing, the data we have, we don’t think it arose from that event.”
The Gold Star families ceremony came the day after a large celebration in the Rose Garden to honor Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court.
Many people who attended the Sept. 26 Barrett event without masks have tested positive for the virus since, including former White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, Sens. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), Notre Dame President the Rev. John I. Jenkins, Harvest Christian Pastor Greg Laurie and former New Jersey governor Chris Christie.
Christie was also one of several people who later helped Trump prepare for the first presidential debate held on Sept. 29 who have tested positive for the coronavirus, including Christie, senior policy adviser Stephen Miller and Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien.
Far fewer people so far seem to have tested positive after attending the Gold Star families event, although The Post was unable to survey of all the attendees.
Adm. Charles W. Ray, vice commandant of the Coast Guard, who attended the Gold Star event, has tested positive, but other top Pentagon leaders who were there, including Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark A. Milley, have tested negative in the days since.
The Gold Star family members who attended the event were subject to a rapid coronavirus test, which had to come back negative for them to enter. During the candlelight ceremony and meetings with Trump and Vice President Pence, the families were not required to wear masks.
Timothy Davis, president and chief executive of the Greatest Generations Foundation, a nonprofit organization that helped families attend the White House event, said in a statement that none of the families the organization assisted had become sick or exhibited symptoms of covid-19.
“All Gold Star Family attendees invited to the Gold Star Family event at the White House on September 27 were all tested by the White House medical team before entering the White House had tested negative for the Coronavirus,” Davis said. “Considering it has been 12-days since the event, all Gold Star Family are all doing well and exhibit no symptoms of COVID-19.”
The foundation did not respond to a question from The Post about how many families it nominated to attend the event.
Bonnie Carroll, president and founder of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or TAPS, which cares for families of fallen U.S. service members, said in a statement that the organization had been in touch with five families it nominated to attend the event and none had been ill beforehand or exhibited symptoms afterward.
“Each family has indicated to us that they were healthy and feeling well prior to attending the event, that they were tested at the event and found to be negative for the coronavirus, and all have felt well in the time since the event,” Carroll said. “They were honored that their loved ones were remembered in this moving tribute, and found comfort in coming together with others who understood their loss.”
One person familiar with the event, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the individual wasn’t authorized to speak about the matter publicly, said that families were allowed to take pictures with Trump, but they were told in advance not to touch him.
Family members were able to tour the White House before meeting with the president and gathering in the East Room. The White House posted a video montage of the event online.
The ceremony recognized the families of 20 deceased service members, according to a copy of the event program obtained by The Post.
Rebekah Holler Ashworth, whose brother, Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Luke Holler, was killed in 2006 by a roadside bomb in Iraq and was honored at the event, said she felt very comfortable with the testing and precautions, noting that no one in her family’s seven-person group has become ill.
“It was very, very well done,” Ashworth said. “Nobody that I know from that event, the Gold Star families, nobody has had any issues since.”
Ashworth said attendees didn’t shake hands and were served food in individual portions to limit the possibility of infection, and that everyone underwent a rapid test before entering. She said her family didn’t make any physical contact with the president but did stand by him for a picture.
The family had a brief discussion with Trump and the first lady before moving on, she said, describing the event as moving and praising the president for the personal attention he devoted to the stories of each family.
“It was a phenomenal event,” Ashworth said. “We were truly, truly honored by him, not just our fallen hero but our family. His heart for the veterans and for the families that are with them really, really, really stuck out.”
Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.