But on Saturday, Trump said he was tested Friday night, apparently as a precaution, and he told reporters his body temperature was “totally normal.” Hours later, the White House physician announced Trump tested negative for the virus.
Trump’s announcement and test results capped days of evasiveness by the White House and Trump’s own refusal to submit to the same rules and standards his administration is asking the rest of the nation to adopt to slow the spread of the pandemic.
His reluctance to get tested also fed into criticism that Trump was not taking the virus outbreak seriously enough, even as he praised the job he and his administration have done.
“The results are very, very good, and when you compare this with what is happening around the world, we are very proud of our people,” he said Saturday.
Trump’s testing announcement appeared to catch some aides off guard, including Vice President Pence, especially given that the president’s physician released a memo hours earlier stating that the risk for Trump was “low.”
The abrupt pivot came as the White House appeared to be enacting new screening measures, announcing that anyone in proximity to Trump or Pence would have their temperatures taken. White House correspondents were screened ahead of the briefing, and one was turned away after aides said the journalist had a fever reading of above 100.4 degrees on three successive measurements from a noncontact thermometer.
Whether the moves were taken to demonstrate additional seriousness in the face of the global pandemic or over fears for Trump’s health, they came after weeks in which the president sought to play down the risks and touted the nation’s relatively low, although quickly growing, number of confirmed cases and deaths. Experts said they expect the cases to grow exponentially, even as the administration has implemented new travel restrictions and other measures.
In recent weeks, as cities and states began banning large gatherings, airlines and cruises were grounded, professional sports leagues canceled their seasons, and schools shut down, Trump appeared determined to carry on with business as usual, in an apparent effort to bolster public confidence. He has continued to shake hands with supporters and aides, met with more than 1,000 donors at his private Mar-a-Lago resort the previous weekend, and has interacted with several congressmen who later self-quarantined, as well as the Brazilian delegation that has multiple officials who have tested positive for coronavirus.
Experts have called Trump’s behavior a risky and irresponsible example for a nation in the midst of a burgeoning health crisis and amid the exhortations of medical experts that all Americans should practice social distancing to help slow the spread of the virus.
Asked Saturday if his shift to more prudent personal conduct aimed to demonstrate greater urgency, Trump insisted that “this was urgent for me right from the beginning,” citing his early decision to ban travel from China, where the illness originated.
He said he agreed it would be wise not to shake hands and that he had long viewed the practice as unsanitary, but he explained that it was difficult for him to break the habit since becoming president.
“Political people, they walk up to me and want to shake my hand,” Trump said. “It’s sort of a natural reflex. We’re all getting out of it. All of us have that problem.”
The president spent the previous weekend at his private resort in Palm Beach, Fla., that was teeming with an eclectic mix of visitors: donors attending the annual Republican National Committee retreat, a delegation led by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, and family and friends celebrating the birthday of Kimberly Guilfoyle, the former Fox News host who is dating Donald Trump Jr.
Among the guests were Rudolph W. Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, as well as Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), who both self-quarantined last week — Gaetz after flying home to Washington with Trump aboard Air Force One.
“It was louder and wilder than usual,” said one person who was there and spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the private scene.
Graham said there were up to 500 people at the birthday celebration alone.
“It’s hard to tell who you’ve met and who you didn’t,” he said in an interview, as guests assess their potential exposure risk after the fact.
Trump arrived on March 6 after spending the day touring tornado-damaged sections of Nashville and visiting the Centers for Disease Control headquarters in Atlanta for a coronavirus update.
At his resort that evening, Trump told the donors that “nobody is blaming us” for the virus, according to an account from another guest who asked for anonymity to quote the president’s private remarks. Despite big drops in the stock markets, the president seemed eager to spin the potential upside — that the closing of borders around the world would promote his “America First” agenda.
“Certain industries are going to be hit very hard — cruise ships and airlines and certain industries,” the president said, according to the guest. “But at the same time, I’ve been saying for a long time people should stay in our country and travel in our country, and that’s going to happen.”
Observers said Trump appeared to be in a good mood and exhibited no personal concerns about the virus, despite the large number of people in the facility.
Since the weekend, however, at least four people who were at the resort have tested positive for the coronavirus. That includes three Brazilians who interacted with Trump — Bolsonaro’s communications secretary Fabio Wajngarten, who took a photo with him, and two who attended the dinner, including acting Brazilian ambassador Nestor Forster Jr.
RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, who led the donors conference at the resort, confirmed to The Washington Post on Saturday that she has been tested for the virus and is awaiting the results while in self-quarantine in Michigan after exhibiting flu-like symptoms.
To national security experts, the scene at Mar-a-Lago raised flags about the ad hoc nature of Trump’s interactions at his private venues and the relatively unregulated access that guests have to him.
“That’s how Trump does business among friends, and he considers Bolsonaro and his delegation as a group of friends,” said Fernando Cutz, who served as Western Hemisphere director at the National Security Council before leaving in 2018. “Bolsonaro’s son was there. Trump likes that. He feels connected to the thought of the children of the president being involved. That plays a role in it. He was acting in a very unguarded, friendly, Mar-a-Lago-type way.”
In a photo posted to Wajngarten’s social media, Trump and Pence are seen posing with the Bolsonaro aide and a Brazilian businessman, with the president clutching a “Make Brazil Great Again” hat.
Wajngarten initially dismissed Brazilian news reports that he tested positive, but the government acknowledged that he had. Bolsonaro’s office said the Brazilian president tested negative.
“There was somebody who they say has it. I have no idea who he is,” Trump said at a White House news conference Friday. “I haven’t seen the pictures. I take hundreds of pictures a day. That night I was taking hundreds of pictures so I don’t know.”
Brazilian officials and other guests said the White House asked basic screening questions of at least some who were in proximity to the president, including where they had traveled recently and whether they felt ill. But it does not appear that guests had their temperatures taken. Experts have said that those infected with coronavirus can be asymptomatic and still pass the illness to others.
After the dinner, some in the Brazilian delegation joined Trump and other U.S. officials at Guilfoyle’s birthday party. Trump offered a toast to the group for their “energy.” Ivanka Trump and Kushner also gave toasts, according to one of the people who was at the resort, and Graham gave a speech lauding Guilfoyle for being the political opposite of liberal Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
In all, Trump attended at least four fundraisers throughout the weekend, said a person familiar with his schedule, and he introduced some donors to Bolsonaro.
On Friday, Trump’s campaign sent an email to donors alerting them that more than one guest had tested positive for coronavirus and urging them to consult doctors if they show symptoms.
The day after the dinner with Bolsonaro, Trump again addressed the GOP donors.
“We’ve done good,” he said of the administration’s coronavirus response, according to the guest who relayed his remarks to The Post. “But no matter what we do, it will never be good for the press. Because they’re using this to try and win an election.”
The president did not yet know that the virus had penetrated the confines of his oceanfront resort as he continued: “They’re trying to scare everybody, from meetings, cancel the meetings, close the schools — you know, destroy the country. And that’s ok, as long as we can win the election. But I really believe that if they see that the Trump administration is handling this virus in a professional, competent way, I don’t believe that’s going to hurt us.”
Mar-a-Lago will likely be hosting fewer events as efforts to thwart the spread of the virus ramp up.
The Republican Party of Palm Beach County was scheduled to have its annual Lincoln Day Dinner at the club on Friday but had to postpone it. They have held it there the past couple of years, and last year, 700 people attended.
“In light of the national emergency, and also concern of folks who don’t want to be around large crowds, we decided to postpone it,” said Michael Barnett, chairman of the county party. “We’re going to schedule it for sometime in late April or May.”
It will still be at Mar-a-Lago, he said.
“We wouldn’t want to have it anywhere else.”
Jose Del Real in Washington, Lori Rozsa in Miami and Terrence McCoy in Rio de Janeiro contributed to this report.
Correction: An earlier version of this report erroneously stated that Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) was at Mar-a-Lago. He was not but interacted with the Brazilian delegation in Miami two days later.