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Power Up: White House coronavirus cases highlight risks of officials not following federal guidelines

with Brent D. Griffiths

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At The White House

MASKING THE RISKS: The brouhaha over President Trump and Vice President Pence appearing at hospitals, factories and nursing homes without masks — despite Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines that encourage cloth face coverings when with groups of people — has been mostly political. Now, a clearer picture is emerging of the actual health risks of government officials working on the coronavirus response not following federal guidelines themselves. 

Case in point: One of the two White House staffers who tested positive for coronavirus, Pence spokesperson Katie Miller, briefed reporters last Thursday without a mask outside a nursing home in Arlington, Va. Pence was there to distribute personal protective equipment to the home. The next day, Miller was removed from Air Force Two after receiving a positive test result, along with six other staffers who were in contact with her recently. 

  • Las Vegas Review-Journal reporter Debra Saunders, who was covering the nursing home event, noted that Miller at one point “coughed, then quipped that she didn’t have the coronavirus. I shrugged off the remark.”

The White House is now scrambling to ramp up its own safety procedures — even as Trump encourages the country to begin reopening — amid concerns that Miller and the military valet to the president who also tested positive may have infected others. 

The concerns about a potential West Wing outbreak highlight the exact reason public health officials recommend that people should wear masks in public and stay home if they have been exposed: It's possible to be an asymptomatic carrier of the highly infectious disease. 

But while the White House management office sent out an all-staff memo on Friday encouraging employees to “practice maximum telework” and to “work remotely if at all possible,” it “did not suggest that employees wear masks, as the CDC has suggested for all Americans in public spaces,” per our Post colleagues. “Masks generally protect other people from the person wearing the face covering, rather than preventing the individual from contracting the virus.” 

  • One potential reason those on White House grounds especially those in proximity to Trump have not been wearing masks: “The president sees it as a sign of weakness to wear masks and so people just haven’t been doing it,” one current White House staffer told a former colleague, a person familiar with their conversation told our colleagues Anne Gearan, Josh Dawsey, and Carol Leonnig. 
  • This could change but probably not for everyone: Trump said on Friday during an interview with Fox News that certain staff members will now cover their faces. (Multiple members of the U.S. Secret Service have now tested positive and those stationed at the White House have reportedly started wearing masks regularly.) 

From an ABC reporter:

And not everyone is self-isolating: The response from potentially exposed White House officials has been inconsistent, with “some senior members of the pandemic task force self-quarantining while others planned to continue to go to work,” Seung Min, Josh and Amy report. This could heighten the health risks: Another CDC guideline is for most workplaces to instruct potentially exposed employees to stay home for 14 days and self-monitor for symptoms. 

  • Pence, who has tested negative, is coming to work: “Late Sunday, the White House put out a statement saying that Mr. Pence would not alter his routine or self-quarantine,” per the Times. Pence “has tested negative every single day and plans to be at the White House tomorrow,” his spokesman Devin O’Malley said.
  • Key members of the task force are staying home: “Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield, both task force members, said they are self-quarantining or teleworking for two weeks after exposure to a coronavirus case at the White House.”
  • Anthony S. Fauci, the government’s top infectious diseases official, will be taking precautions that include “a mix of teleworking and wearing a mask during in-person meetings,” his spokesperson told Amy Goldstein and Hannah Knowles. Fauci, per his aide, is “considered to be at relatively low risk based on the degree of his exposure. Nevertheless, he is taking appropriate precautions to mitigate risk to any of his personal contacts while still allowing him to carry out his responsibilities in this public health crisis.”
  • “But several administration officials said White House staffers were encouraged to come into the office by their supervisors, and that aides who travel with [Trump] and [Pence] would not stay out for 14 days, the recommended time frame to quarantine once exposed to the virus,” Seung Min, Josh and Amy report.

Key quote: “It is scary to go to work. I think that I'd be a lot safer if I was sitting at home than I would be going to the West Wing,” Kevin Hassett, an economic adviser to Trump, said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “But, you know, it's the time when people have to step up and serve their country.” 

It's possible the White House's rapid testing system may have given officials a false sense of security. There's no way to monitor the exact point of infection without testing constantly a point Trump acknowledged even as he sought to tamp down on the value of testing in general. 

  • This is why the whole concept of tests aren’t necessarily great. The tests are perfect, but something can happen between the test where it’s good and then something happens and all of a sudden — she was tested very recently and tested negative and today I guess for some reason she tested positive,” Trump told reporters on Friday. (Worth noting: This is, incidentally, another reason experts argue for masks in the workplace.)
  • And the test itself may yield false negatives: “The White House is frequently testing its staff using ID Now, a rapid test by Abbott Laboratories that can generate a result in five to 13 minutes,” the Times reports. “The benefit is its speed and portability; the testing machine is about the size of a toaster oven. But some hospitals and doctors found that it was turning up too many false negatives — cases in which people really had the virus, but the test said they did not.”

More steps coming: “The president’s physician and White House operations continue to work closely to ensure every precaution is taken to keep the president, first family and the entire White House complex safe and healthy at all times,” White House spokesman Judd Deere told Power Up last night. “In addition to social distancing, daily temperature checks and symptom histories, hand sanitizer, and regular deep cleaning of all work spaces, every staff member in proximity to the president and vice president is being tested daily for covid-19 as well as any guests.”

  • The Friday memo "also told employees they must quarantine for 14 days if they leave the Washington region and must report all of their travel,” per Seung Min, Josh and Amy.

But most people in the United States still don't have the ability to test as frequently as White House officials — and capacity is still below the level that public health experts say is necessary to schools and businesses to reopen. The risks have already become apparent in places that haven't closed or implemented enough measures to stop the spread. 

  • An outbreak has emerged at Tyson Foods pork plant in Waterloo, Iowa, where workers continued business as usual during the pandemic with minimal safety precautions: “As of Thursday, the county health department had recorded 1,031 coronavirus infections among Tyson employees — more than a third of the workforce. Some are on ventilators. Three have died, according to Tyson,” the New York Times's Ana Swanson, David Yaffe-Bellany and Michael Corkery report. 

Expect testing and the White House's access to it to be a big issue on the (mostly virtual) campaign trail: “The Trump administration could focus on producing and distributing adequate testing and protocols that conform with the guidance of public health experts; doing so would speed up the reopening process considerably and make it a whole lot more effective,” presumptive Democratic nominee and former vice president Joe Biden writes in an op-ed out this morning for The Post. 

“The administration is fully aware that this is the right path, too — after all, the president and his staff are now reportedly receiving daily tests, Biden continued. They knew exactly how to make the Oval Office safe and operational, and they put in the work to do it. They just haven't put in that same work for the rest of us. If Trump and his team understand how critical testing is to their safety — and they seem to, given their own behavior — why are they insisting that it's unnecessary for the American people?” 

Senior White House economic officials attempted to reassure the American public on May 10 that the economy will bounce back. (Video: The Washington Post)

The People

TOP TRUMP ECONOMIC ADVISERS SAY JOB MARKET COULD GET WORSE: “The statements from [Hassett] and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin came three days after the Labor Department reported its highest unemployment figures since the Great Depression,” Aaron Gregg, Felicia Sonmez, Lenny Bernstein and Carolyn Y. Johnson report.

  • Hassett said "nobody knows" when those who lost their jobs will be able to return to work: "To get unemployment rates like the ones that we’re about to see . . . which I think will climb up towards 20 percent by next month, you have to really go back to the Great Depression to see that,” he said told Margaret Brennan.

Mnuchin argued that the job market should begin to improve by September: When asked by [”Fox News Sunday" host Chris] Wallace whether the country’s unemployment rate was “close to 25 percent at this point, which is Great Depression neighborhood,” Mnuchin said, “Chris, we could be.”

The Policies

WHITE HOUSE WARY OF STIMULUS PRICE TAGS: “Senior Trump administration officials are growing increasingly wary of the massive federal spending to combat the economic downturn and are considering ways to limit the impact of future stimulus efforts on the national debt, according to six administration officials and four external advisers familiar with the matter,” Jeff Stein, Josh Dawsey and John Hudson report.

  • What's on the table: “Some White House officials have gone as far as exploring policies such as automatic spending cuts as the economy improves, or prepaying Social Security benefits to workers before they become eligible, although these measures are unlikely to advance given the political stakes, said these officials and advisers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of internal deliberations.”

The biggest effect may be on the next phase of stimulus: “House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has vowed an additional $2 trillion package, including hundreds of billions in aid for states,” our colleagues write. “Numerous congressional Democrats have also called for making the $1,200 stimulus checks recurring, so they arrive in Americans’ bank accounts every month until the crisis abates.”

  • But some White House advisers are urging a “pause”: “I think that many people would like to just pause for a moment and take a look at the economic impact of this massive assistance program, which is the greatest in United States history,” National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow said on ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos,” while pledging to continue conversations with both parties.

Concerns about deficit are coming from traditional conservatives in the White House: That includes new chief of staff Mark Meadows and acting budget director Russ Vought. But it's unclear whether Trump will share their concerns, he also promised during the 2016 campaign not to touch Social Security or Medicare.

  • Some voters are apparently skeptical that Trump will keep his word: “About 39 percent of voters think Trump is more likely to cut Medicare, while 51 percent say presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden is more unlikely to cut their benefits, according to a 17-page Republican National Committee poll shown to the president last month, according to a person with knowledge of its findings,” our colleagues write.
A protest was held at the Glynn County Courthouse in Brunswick, Ga., on May 8, 2020, to call for justice in the fatal shooting of Ahmaud Arbery. (Video: The Washington Post)

Outside the Beltway

GEORGIA AG ASKS DOJ TO LOOK INTO ARBERY'S KILLING: “Ahmaud Arbery’s fatal shooting in February spurred public outrage last week after video emerged showing the 25-year-old trying to run by a pickup truck with two armed white men, before struggling with them and falling to the ground dead when shots were fired,” Hannah Knowles reports.

  • More details: Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr requested “Bobby Christine, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Georgia, lead a ‘complete and transparent review of how the Ahmaud Arbery case was handled from the outset,’” the Atlanta Journal Constitution’s Christian Boone reports.

What they might be looking into: Glynn County District Attorney Jackie Johnson has faced accusations from two county officials that she stopped officers from making arrests the day Arbery was killed. She has denied those claims. Before retiring one of the armed men, Greg McMichael, worked in Johnson’s office. (Cleve R. Wootson Jr. and Colby Itkowitz have more details about the case.)

  • Remember charges were only filed after the footage went viral: “The Georgia Bureau of Investigation arrested retired police detective Gregory McMichael and his son, Travis, on Thursday on charges of murder and aggravated assault, after the elder McMichael told officers that he pursued Arbery in the belief he was behind neighborhood burglaries," our colleague writes.

The Campaign

AS TRUMP GOES, SO GOES THE SENATE?: “Republicans are increasingly nervous they could lose control of the Senate this fall as a potent combination of a cratering economy, [Trump’s] handling of the pandemic and rising enthusiasm among Democratic voters dims their electoral prospects,” Seung Min Kim and Mike DeBonis report.

  • Key quote: “It is a bleak picture right now all across the map, to be honest with you,” one Republican strategist closely involved in Senate races who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss concerns within the party told our colleagues. “This whole conversation is a referendum on Trump, and that is a bad place for Republicans to be. But it’s also not a forever place.”

Where the race stands: “Strategists from both parties said the key battles for Republicans remain races in North Carolina, Arizona, Colorado, Maine and, to a lesser extent, Iowa,” our colleagues write. The GOP's hope for a lone pickup to pad their slim three-seat majority is in Alabama, where Democratic Sen. Doug Jones faces voters after his shocking special election upset.

  • Dems are also outpacing Republicans in fundraising: “The first quarter of 2020 was also a boon in fundraising for Democrats, with 10 challengers outraising GOP opponents in seats currently held by Republicans: Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Montana, North Carolina and South Carolina. The only closely watched race where the Republican incumbent raised more cash than the Democrat was Sen. Joni Ernst in Iowa.” 

PARTIES STRUGGLE TO PLAN CONVENTIONS: “The Republican National Committee has asked the federal government to provide personal protective gear for political conventions this summer, underscoring the challenges of staging the quadrennial events during a pandemic …,” Josh Dawsey, Michael Scherer and Annie Linskey report.

  • For now, the DNC is not following suit: “A White House official said no decision has been made on providing the PPE for conventions but that the political gatherings have been viewed in the past as national security events. The official confirmed that [RNC Chairwoman Ronna] McDaniel has raised the issue with the White House.”

Trump wants a convention: “The president wants to go full steam ahead,” McDaniel told our colleagues. “We are full steam ahead for in person, in Charlotte.”

  • “The Republican convention organizers hired a medical adviser on Thursday that might recommend ‘adjustments,’ McDaniel said, but added it was too soon to know. “One person with direct knowledge of the planning said ‘it is difficult to imagine a scenario where everyone is sitting right next to another person in the arena.’”

Democrats don't want to zoom alone: “Party leaders are concerned about the optics of Trump pulling off an in-person event while Democrats switch to a socially distant television broadcast,” our colleagues write. “Some Democratic officials are also fearful that their delegates will be afraid to attend the event.”

  • Changes they're considering: Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.), a co-chair of the host committee for the Milwaukee event, described planning that was underway for more socially distant meetings and new hygiene measures to keep microphones clean during events.

In the Media


Metro doesn't expect to be fully back until Spring 2021: “Instead, the transit agency plans to slowly ramp up service and will ask the region’s employers to limit daily commuters by staggering work schedules and encouraging telework,” Justin George reports.

  • The plan will be presented to Metro's board on Thursday: “It relies heavily on elected leaders, federal officials, military brass and chief executives to keep passenger numbers low so rail cars and buses don’t become dangerously crowded and worsen the spread of infection," our colleague writes. "Customers shouldn’t expect any major service improvements over what is available now until at least fall; Metro plans to keep the same reduced-service schedule until the start of the school year.”

Trump administration reportedly to accuse China of attempting to hack covid research: “The alert, from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Department of Homeland Security, is expected to accuse Beijing of working to steal from American institutions intellectual property and health information related to coronavirus vaccines and treatment through hacking and other illicit means and may come within days, the person said. The warning was not finalized and plans around its release could change, the person said,” the Wall Street Journal's Dustin Volz reports.

A Sioux tribe in South Dakota is refusing to take down checkpoints panned by the governor: The office of Gov. Kristi L. Noem (R) has said checkpoints along U.S. and state highways through tribal land are “not legal” and vowed to take the issue to federal court if they don't come down. Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Chairman Harold Frazier, who leads one of the tribe's Noem has written to on Friday, told CNN that the checkpoints are not coming down, Sara Sidner, Leslie Perrot, Artemis Moshtaghian and Susannah Cullinane report.

  • Frazier said his tribe is ill-equipped to handle a potential outbreak: “With the lack of resources we have medically, this is our best tool we have right now to try to prevent [the spread of Covid-19]," he told CNN. He added that “the nearest health care, critical care is three hours away from where we live.”

New York's reopen remains far off: “The factors that made the city the U.S. epicenter of the pandemic — its density, tourism and dependence on mass transit — complicate a return to any semblance of normalcy. The city is still far from meeting the public health metrics necessary to reopen, from available critical-care beds to new hospital admissions for the virus,” the Times's J. David Goodman and Michael Rothfeld report.

From singing in the rain to driveway dancing, families separated by social distancing still found ways to celebrate on Mother's Day weekend. (Video: The Washington Post)

Some of the best Mother's Day messages:

  • New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) spoke to his mother, Matilda during his daily new conference. “Happy Mother's Day to you mom. I miss you. I love you so, so much,” he said. “I wish I could be with you, but I can't be. But I can't be, because I love you. That's why I can't be with you, because I love you.”
  • Sopan Deb wrote in the New York Times about calling his mother for the first time in years and their steps toward reconciliation.
  • Amy Saltzman in The Post's Magazine retraced the political career or her mom, Bettylu Saltzman, who despite never holding a paid-position on a campaign has become a force in Illinois politics and is credited when connecting a young Barack Obama to David Axelrod.