While the dark-suited Secret Service agents surrounding a president are the most visible (and iconic) aspect of his security, there’s a much deeper and hidden ring of protection around him, specifically against chemical and bioweapon attacks. The air in the White House is kept slightly overpressurized to ensure no chemical or biological agents released outside penetrate the building. Sensitive mechanical sniffers at security screening points to enter the compound test to ensure that no one smuggles in a weapon. The president’s limos and SUVs are hermetically sealed to ensure that they can pass through a cloud of dangerous gas or spores without harm to passengers inside. In fact, the armored government SUVs like those that carried President Trump on his joyride around Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Sunday afternoon are usually stocked with full hazmat suits in the passenger compartments, to allow a protectee to suit up inside the sealed vehicle and exit safely through a dangerous environment in the event of an attack.
All of those bioweapon protections — and others that are even more secret — are defeated, though, if the threat vector bringing the bioweapon into the White House is the president himself. Saturday’s quasi-rally there, coming just two weeks and a day after the “superspreader” Rose Garden event with Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett touched off a crisis in the government, will be conducted with the full knowledge that an unpredictable biological agent is already inside the White House compound.
In none of the myriad emergency plans and continuity exercises developed since the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway by a doomsday cult first opened U.S. government security officials’ eyes to the dangers of a bioweapon did they ever imagine that a president — knowing he’s infected with a deadly virus that’s also tearing through the senior ranks of his staff and other elected officials — would willingly land Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House and walk from it into the most secure residence in the world without wearing a mask.
By Thursday, Trump — still possibly contagious — was working in the Oval Office alongside aides such as White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and social media director Dan Scavino. All three were wearing full personal protective equipment to be in such proximity to the president, according to NBC’s White House correspondent Peter Alexander. Outside the West Wing, a crisply dressed Marine stood guard — but the security at this point seemed a bit farcical. After all, the biggest threat to the leadership of the U.S. government was already inside.
Time and again over the past seven months, Trump has managed to defeat the elaborate rings of multimillion-dollar security meant to protect him and his top advisers. Security and contingency planners have always counted on a basic defense at the core of their plans: The idea that the commander in chief will be a rational, sober actor.
Now — even as the president prepares to hold a public event with potentially thousands of attendees — the coronavirus outbreak launched into the heart of the nation’s government by Trump’s recklessness has grown into a full-blown national security crisis as an ever-widening circle of officials are forced into quarantine or told to work from home to prevent the virus’s spread.
On Tuesday, the Defense Department said the Joint Chiefs of Staff are all in quarantine after they spent time together in “The Tank,” the special conference room inside the Pentagon used by the military’s leadership, with the vice commandant of the Coast Guard, who tested positive after attending an event for military Gold Star families at the White House the previous weekend. The nation’s military leaders join a harrowing list of presidential advisers, members of Congress, journalists, Secret Service agents, junior and mid-level White House political staff and professional residence staff who have all tested positive in the past week. (Not to mention Trump’s campaign manager, who has been issuing news releases about the debate that was canceled while in quarantine himself.) Since the president arrived back in the White House, the assistant commandant of the Marine Corps has tested positive, as have additional journalists, staffers and others personnel; all told, a new memo from the Federal Emergency Management Agency says 34 people have contracted the virus linked to the White House. The D.C. government has set up a temporary, free coronavirus testing site just outside the compound, with banners encouraging anyone who attended events there to stop by. USA Today calculated as many as 6,000 Americans might have been exposed after attending events linked to the White House outbreak.
Trump’s utter disdain for and disinterest in the pandemic, and his whistling-past-the-literal-graveyard approach to his own safety and the safety of our top government leaders, represents a fresh and unexpected assault on American democracy. It is the latest lesson that our system of government rests, unsteadily, on the belief that leaders will place the interests of the country above their own.
To soothe his ego and avoid his insecurities, Trump has refused time and again to take the basic precautions recommended by public health professionals, dismissing masks and social distancing as the stuff of sissies. Ego and insecurity, though, explains only part of Trump’s problem. More fundamental is that from the earliest days of his presidency, his ahistoric and incurious view of the world has led him to misunderstand the very role of a president in a democracy.
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The United States makes the job of president uniquely complex. We combine the roles of head of state and head of government — roles, for instance, divided in Great Britain between the queen and the prime minister — and in a crisis, those roles come into tension. The public leadership and reassurance required of a figurehead head of state in an emergency conflicts with the need for the head of government to remain safe, secure and in command.
On 9/11, George W. Bush — understanding that the nation wanted to see its president in control — sought to race back to the White House and the Oval Office from Sarasota, Fla., where he’d been reading to schoolchildren before the terrorist attack. Aboard Air Force One, its military pilot, the president’s military aide, the head of his Secret Service detail and White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. all worked to talk Bush out of returning to Washington. It wasn’t safe, they said, until the government was sure there weren’t more hijacked planes in the sky.
“He fought with us tooth and nail all day to go back to Washington,” Secret Service Agent Dave Wilkinson told me in 2016. “We basically refused to take him back. The way we look at it is that by federal law, the Secret Service has to protect the president. The wishes of that person that day are secondary to what the law expects of us. Theoretically it’s not his call, it’s our call.”
Everyone aboard the plane that day, including Bush, was careful to stop just short of giving or rejecting a direct order. And yet in the end, Bush acceded — knowing it was the wrong decision from a public leadership standpoint but the right decision as commander in chief. He was mature enough to understand that the Secret Service and the military had the nation’s best interests at heart. They’d get him back to Washington as soon as it was safe — but until then, he owed it to the American people to stay alive.
Trump, meanwhile, couldn’t even spend an entire weekend in the hospital in isolation, insisting on that ill-advised joyride that could have put all the Secret Service agents sealed inside in peril. In his first video from the hospital last week, Trump, in defending his pattern of rallies, gatherings and general disregard for the virus, said he couldn’t stand to follow Bush’s example. “I can’t do that — I had to be out front,” Trump said. “I can’t be locked up in a room upstairs.”
What Trump saw as weakness — prioritizing his own safety and the safety of fellow leaders, even at the expense of public visibility — other presidents have understood represented strength: Their safety directly affected the nation’s safety, and they had a responsibility to take care of themselves. Trump, after getting aggressive and extensive medical care unavailable to literally any other person on the planet, has spent the week downplaying the virus that has killed more than 213,000 Americans, tweeting that people should not let the virus “dominate your life,” incorrectly describing the treatment he got as a cure and saying “when you catch it, you get better.” Even as questions persist about when his symptoms first appeared and how long he’ll be contagious, Trump pushed to hold a public rally in Florida this weekend; it’s now planned for Monday.
That aggressive schedule shows how Trump’s personal constitution brings him conflict with the actual Constitution. In personally creating the risk at the center of the country’s government that all of its security plans are meant to prevent, Trump’s has demonstrated in another way how little he understands about the presidency. It’s not about him; It’s about the office.
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The U.S. government’s contingency planning doesn’t contemplate the commander in chief as a single person — instead, it dwells on what is known as a “Office of the Presidency,” the almost spiritual idea that a president might die, but the presidency always lives. It’s the American equivalent of the historic French proclamation “Le roi est mort, vive le roi!” — “The king is dead, long live the king” — the first an announcement of a monarch’s passing, the second the acknowledgment that power has seamlessly transferred to the heir.
It is this Office of the Presidency that Secret Service agents protect — not any person but the physical embodiment of American democracy in the guise of its elected leaders. “For me personally, no one ever elected to the office of the presidency was worth dying for, yet the office of the presidency was,” former Secret Service agent Dan Emmett wrote in his memoir, “Within Arm’s Length.” Today agents are forced to wonder: Is the greatest threat they face coming from the man at the center of their protective diamond formations? What do you do with a protectee who has spread this virus through the ranks of his own government, sidelined his own staff in a moment of crisis and infected the leadership of the nation’s military and members of Congress, too?
Trump’s actions compromise not just his staff and protectors, but the very idea of the Office of the Presidency itself. At every stage of the pandemic, Trump’s behavior has defeated the basics of an effective defense. In the hours, days and weeks after 9/11, when the United States feared a second-wave attack from al-Qaeda — and particularly feared an attack from a weapon of mass destruction — one of the first moves was to physically separate the president and vice president. Within hours of the attacks, Vice President Richard B. Cheney helicoptered to Camp David to be away from the president, and he spent much of that fall in “undisclosed locations” not because he wanted to but because it was the right thing to do for the country and his role as next-in-line to the president.
Trump instead has kept Vice President Pence close at hand all year, despite all manner of complex constitutional questions about what happens if the vice president himself falls ill. There is no mechanism in the Constitution to deal with an incapacitated vice president, a wrinkle that prompted Cheney in 2001 to leave a signed resignation letter with his legal counsel in the event he fell ill (he had already suffered four heart attacks) and needed to be removed from office.
While Pence has tested negative so far, positive tests continue to come in for other White House aides. And Pence was physically present with Trump and Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper at the same event where the Coast Guard admiral appears to have contracted the virus. It appears everyone in charge of the nation’s nuclear forces might have been at risk together in one room.
Elsewhere, the government has tried to keep continuity plans active; the bunker at NORAD, a massive city-size facility hidden inside a carved-out Cheyenne Mountain, actually sealed up a team of military commanders inside early in the pandemic to help ensure a functioning military apparatus if the virus truly got out of control in the country.
But even a team of healthy and hale military leaders in a mountain bunker aren’t much use if the civilian leadership of government is too sick, too reckless and too distracted to run the country.