The president appeared puzzled that the aide, Katie Miller, the press secretary for Vice President Pence, had contracted the virus “out of the blue” after testing negative several times under a routine White House screening program put in place last month.
During the event with GOP members, Trump suggested “the whole concept of tests isn’t great,” but he declared that he was satisfied with the procedures that are in place to protect him and his top aides.
“I don’t worry about things. I do what I have to do,” said Trump, who this week resumed traveling with a visit to a manufacturing facility in Phoenix. “We’re dealing with an invisible situation. Nobody knows. All you can do is take precaution and do the best that you can.”
The discovery of the virus within the heavily fortified White House complex this week sent shock waves through the staff and prompted renewed scrutiny of the safety measures around a commander in chief who has flouted social distancing policies and other best practices recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention during the pandemic.
Several security officials with executive branch experience said in interviews Friday that the White House has taken a lax and risky approach that, in their view, reflected Trump’s consistent efforts to minimize the threat from the virus. The president has pushed to reopen parts of the country as more than 30 million people have filed for unemployment benefits, upending his plans to tout a strong economy as a core of his reelection message this fall.
Like Trump, most of his aides, including Pence and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, have not worn face masks, and the president has huddled with guests at the White House for photo-ops that undermine the efforts at social distancing that do take place, such as seats placed more than six feet apart.
“This is a show of bravado. This is a show of ‘I got this. I’m in control,’ ” said one former security official familiar with White House security planning during past administrations.
“He’s tried to minimize this threat from day one. It’s the only way he can laugh in the face of this disease,” said this person, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to frankly address sensitive security matters. “If he backtracks now, and starts wearing a mask, it will contradict the red meat he’s feeding to his base constantly. This is the first health crisis that has been politicized.”
The White House has defended the efforts to keep Trump and Pence safe, which includes requiring visitors who meet with either to undergo rapid tests for the novel coronavirus. Meadows said Friday that new protocols had been put in place to secure the campus over the past two days, during which a military valet to the president also tested positive.
Long lines of staff members and security personnel filed into the Old Executive Office Building, across the street from the White House, to get tested for the virus late into Thursday night and throughout Friday following the news about the military officer and Miller being infected.
But critics warned that proper security precautions are not being taken to protect the president from a lethal threat despite the assurances from the White House.
“Normally the White House would defer to the medical unit on safety. They would defer to the Secret Service on security,” said one former Trump White House official who has heard complaints from current staff about the lack of protocols. “But in this White House, everybody seems to be just doing their own thing.”
Traditionally, the White House medical unit, run by the Navy and led by the White House physician, has been in charge of dictating health safety protocols for the staff on the 18-acre White House complex.
During past epidemics, including the SARS outbreak in the early 2000s, that unit had examined precautions for White House staff, and it developed a set of protocols to protect the president and his staff, as well as the rest of the government, as the swine flu, known as H1N1, arrived in the country in 2009, officials said.
But as the novel coronavirus spread in January, said an official involved in those efforts, “it was stunning that they weren’t taking those measures.”
On Friday morning, Pence’s trip to Des Moines was delayed for more than an hour as aides who had been in close contact with Miller were escorted from Air Force Two out of precaution. Miller is married to Stephen Miller, a senior adviser to Trump who has interacted with him this week, though it remained unclear late Friday whether the couple would both be quarantined at home. The White House said Pence tested negative for the virus as did the aides removed from his plane.
Yet Katie Miller’s positive test raised questions over who else she might have been in contact with. She has attended nearly all of the White House coronavirus task force meetings, led by Pence, in the Situation Room, aides said. No aides wore masks in those meetings, except occasionally Matthew Pottinger, the deputy national security adviser.
Following guidelines from medical experts, the White House medical staff has begun a contact tracing process on Miller to determine who she interacted with recently and whether she and the military valet might have passed the virus to one another, officials said. One official said Stephen Miller is “an ultimate germaphobe” who scrupulously sanitizes his hands and maintains social distancing.
White House aides said Friday they were not releasing Katie Miller’s name publicly but were forced to confirm it to reporters after Trump identified her during his meeting with the Republican lawmakers.
Less than an hour after Pence’s plane had departed Washington, the president and first lady Melania Trump took a motorcade to the World War II Memorial on the Mall to participate in a commemoration with seven veterans, all in their 90s, to mark the 75th anniversary of the end of the war in Europe.
Asked by a reporter whether he considered wearing a mask around a group of elderly people who are at a higher risk of the virus, Trump said no.
“I was very far away,” he said. “I would have loved to have gone up and hugged them because they’re great. I had a conversation with everyone but we were very far away. And the wind was blowing hard in such a direction that if the plague ever reached them, I’d be very surprised.”
Since early April, those who visit Trump or Pence have been required to undergo rapid coronavirus tests from Abbott Laboratories, which can deliver results within 15 minutes, officials said. The president and vice president, along with aides, have been tested regularly, at least once or more per week. Officials have said the new protocols could require them to be tested daily.
But close aides have been lax around Trump on other counts. On Thursday, the president met with close advisers, including son-in-law Jared Kushner, Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel and campaign manager Brad Parscale, who brought with him five prototype masks featuring the Trump-Pence reelection logo.
Trump was delighted with the campaign swag and approved its distribution for public sale, officials said, and Parscale posted a photo on Twitter of himself wearing the mask.
But that was the only time anyone involved in the meeting had worn any sort of face covering, the officials said.
Three visitors to the White House on Thursday said that few officials inside the complex were wearing masks, and Trump and senior aides did not bring up the positive tests or express safety concerns.
It’s not just the president’s political advisers who have flouted the protocols. Secret Service agents on Trump’s protective detail, and officers who are taking the temperatures of all visitors to the White House grounds, also have routinely gone without masks, bewildering some of their former colleagues.
Several members of the Secret Service have tested positive for the virus in recent days, according to two officials with knowledge of the testing who were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly. The number of affected agents and their locations were not clear. Besides the White House, Secret Service agents operate out of more than 100 locations around the country.
During his meeting with the GOP lawmakers, many of whom flew to Washington for the meeting and did not wear masks during the White House event, Trump insisted that many of his aides have been wearing masks. He pointed toward Shealah Craighead, the chief White House photographer, who was wearing one.
He used the event to project confidence on a day when the unemployment rate spiked dramatically to 14.7 percent as vast sectors of society remain shuttered, and he rolled out a new slogan for his push to ease lockdown restrictions, “Transition to Greatness.”
Trump dismissed the notion that the virus spreading among White House staff was a warning sign about his push to reopen the country, where death toll continued to surge, approaching 77,000 in the United States.
“It could happen anywhere, whether you did go back to work or you didn’t go back to work,” Trump said. “It’s a vicious enemy and an elusive enemy. It’s probably the most contagious enemy anybody’s ever seen.”
Colby Itkowitz contributed to this report.