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Opinion What we should learn from the White House’s coronavirus cluster

President Trump walks with White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany on the South Lawn of the White House last month. (Yuri Gripas/Pool/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
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The news that White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany tested positive for the coronavirus Monday, making her the ninth high-ranking person in President Trump’s orbit to be infected with the virus, is instructive on many levels for voters, members of Congress and the media.

For starters, while former vice president Joe Biden may not want to talk about President Trump’s health, it is essential that he talk about Trump and Vice President Pence’s reckless disregard for staff, visitors and the general public. The White House operated under the blatantly false premise that if they tested everyone, they could ignore guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on wearing masks and social distancing. This is dead wrong because, as we saw with McEnany, you can test negative for many days while exposing others to the virus. This is why it was grossly irresponsible to hold an unmasked announcement ceremony for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett where White House staff, reporters and outsiders interacted with each other. It is a microcosm of the reckless handling of the virus, which has killed at least 209,000 Americans. Biden and his running mate, Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), cannot ignore this.

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Second, the White House’s failure to promptly come forward with basic information for contact tracing puts others including White House permanent staff, reporters and all their families at risk. If you do not know when Trump first tested positive, you cannot determine if you were in proximity to him during an infectious period. The same is true for everyone else in the White House who has tested positive. Because the White House is so untrustworthy and so lacking in candor, those who may have been exposed are essentially flying blind.

The briefings on President Trump's health are a deliberate exercise in obfuscation, says physician and Post contributing columnist Leana S. Wen. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Micheal Reynolds/Bloomberg, Alex Edelman/Getty/The Washington Post)

Third, the White House’s behavior has been duplicated in the GOP Senate, which does not have a mask requirement and does not conduct mandatory testing. We have learned of three cases of senators testing positive in recent days; other members may test negative day after day until they don’t, as was the case with McEnany. It is extremely irresponsible for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) to proceed with hearings and a floor vote on Barrett under these conditions. If they insist, it is incumbent upon responsible members of the Republican caucus to deprive them of a quorum. (Two Republicans have already signaled they will not vote for the nominee.)

Fourth, the president’s behavior is raising legitimate questions as to whether he is fit to make decisions about his own health — let alone about the country. This includes his willingness to expose others to danger when he is in the throes of the disease, his bizarre drive to greet supporters and his demands to go back to the White House despite being highly infectious, as CNN reported. No responsible doctor, who takes an oath to protect his patients and not to endanger others, should allow this — no matter how much Trump browbeats them.

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Finally, we may face an impossible situation in which the 25th Amendment is entirely applicable — the president may be impaired by the disease and his treatment — but Trump’s narcissism prevents him from temporarily turning over the government to Pence under Section 3 of that amendment, as other presidents have done when they have been under anesthesia. Moreover, Pence and Trump’s Cabinet are likely too cowardly to exercise their responsibility under Section 4 of the 25th Amendment, which states: “Whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President.” We are therefore stuck with a potentially impaired, dangerous president.

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We are in a perilous time, made worse by the realization that nothing that comes out of the administration or from Trump’s doctors can be taken at face value. One wonders how many others will be infected or, God forbid, die before Pence stands up to Trump to protect the lives he jeopardizes.

A week after President Trump tapped Amy Coney Barrett as Supreme Court nominee, he and several attendees at the event have tested positive for coronavirus. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Read more:

Max Boot: The GOP’s coronavirus denialism finally catches up with its leaders

James Downie: Reality smacks Trumpworld, but the bubble remains

Joseph Allen: The White House coronavirus outbreak shows that testing alone is not enough

Patti Davis: Presidents don’t get privacy. My father understood that — even when he was shot.

Leana Wen: Doctors say Trump may go home Monday. Based on what they’ve told us, that’s a bad idea.

John Barry: History tells us what a virus can do to a president