Two weeks ago, President Trump held an event at the South Court Auditorium in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on lowering prescription drug prices. That facility is larger than conference spaces in the White House, providing room for guests to spread out and safeguard against the coronavirus.
Yet after his remarks, Trump invited a dozen people to crowd behind him shoulder-to-shoulder as he signed several executive actions and handed out ceremonial pens. Four wore face masks, while the others did not, including the president and four doctors in white medical smocks.
The juxtaposition of the safeguards set up to protect the president and model safe behavior for the public with Trump’s seemingly arbitrary decision to override them in pursuit of a photo op illustrates his administration’s ongoing inability or unwillingness to send a clear message to the public on how to protect themselves against a pandemic that has killed more than 157,000 Americans.
Since the beginning of the crisis, Trump has contradicted the government’s top health experts, played down the severity of the deadly pathogen, deflected blame for the high death rate in the United States and pushed to rapidly reopen businesses and public schools.
With his public approval rates sagging, Trump in recent weeks has grudgingly taken modest steps to demonstrate he is taking the pandemic more seriously after having held a campaign rally with thousands of people in Tulsa in June. He donned a mask in public for the first time last month and acknowledged that the pandemic “will get worse before it gets better.” His campaign this week sent an email to supporters urging them to wear masks.
But Trump’s efforts remain inconsistent, and he has continued to denounce guidance and data from government experts, including infectious-disease specialist Anthony S. Fauci and Deborah Birx, the White House’s coronavirus task force response coordinator. The scenes at the president’s public events have reinforced this contradictory messaging.
On a trip to Tampa last week, Trump held an event on the airport tarmac in which he touted the endorsement of local sheriffs in front of more than 150 supporters, most of whom were clustered tightly and did not wear masks. At the White House this week, he invited 21 guests, including two children, to gather behind him as he signed a bipartisan bill on national parks. His press office has maintained a standing invitation for a Trump-friendly cable news outlet to attend the president’s news briefings, overriding efforts from the White House Correspondents’ Association to limit attendance over safety concerns.
On Thursday, Trump visited Ohio, where he wore a mask during a factory tour but also delivered remarks to dozens of supporters clustered at the airport.
And on Friday, dozens of patrons at Trump’s private Bedminster, N.J., golf resort crowded closely together in a ballroom — most not wearing masks in apparent violation of state regulations that also limit indoor gatherings to 25 people or 25 percent of a room's capacity — to watch a hastily arranged presidential news conference. A club official distributed masks after reporters began tweeting about the scene. Trump said the event was excluded from the restrictions because it was a political event and said it could also be characterized as a peaceful protest.
“He slips back and forth, offering a somber assessment in one breath and, almost in the same sentence, you see another side of him that is more characteristic — attacking the experts and the science. That’s been his stance throughout this pandemic,” said Amesh Adalja, an infectious-
disease expert at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security. The mixed messages, Adalja continued, have left the president’s supporters wondering, “Should we really be taking this seriously?”
Trump aides rejected the suggestion that his reluctance to acknowledge, and take responsibility for, the uncontrolled spread of the virus has been mirrored by inconsistencies at his own events.
A number of aides close to the president — his national security adviser, his military valet and a spokeswoman for Vice President Pence — have tested positive for the virus over the past few months. White House officials have tightened screening protocols, several months ago requiring rapid coronavirus tests for those in contact with him and, this week, moving to add random testing more broadly in the White House complex.
Under the protocols, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R), who had planned to meet with the president Thursday, tested positive for the virus and announced he would self-quarantine for two weeks. Late Thursday, he announced that he had been tested again and the result was negative.
Trump “takes the health and safety of everyone traveling in support of himself and all White House operations very seriously, as well as those dedicated to covering him and this Administration,” White House spokesman Judd Deere said in a statement. Deere said the White House collaborates with the president’s doctor and military officials assigned to the complex to incorporate guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Yet the president’s eagerness to return to business as usual and hold events with supporters has butted up against safety protocols even as infection rates have surged since June.
Paul Madden, 68, of Boston, was among those who joined Trump onstage and wore a face mask as the president signed the executive actions in the South Court Auditorium. Madden, who has diabetes and advocates for lower insulin costs, said he made a nine-hour drive to avoid the risk of contracting the virus in an airplane. Upon arriving in Washington, he said, he carefully disinfected his hotel room.
“Every day, you’ve got to think about being a positive role model and look to embrace that,” he said in an interview. “I happen to embrace the Anthony Faucis of the world and feel what they say are the correct things to be following.”
Trump has routinely contradicted the advice of Fauci and other experts. He continues to tout the use of hydroxychloroquine, an antimalarial drug, to treat and protect against the coronavirus — even taking the drug himself for two weeks — despite numerous studies that have found it is ineffective and can cause harmful side effects.
During an interview with Barstool Sports founder Dave Portnoy last month, Trump joked around about safety precautions, saying he had agreed to shake Portnoy’s hand “rather than insult him.”
Portnoy told Trump he had been tested at the White House, and the president responded with a laugh: “Good, otherwise they’d take you out right now.” At the end of the 20-minute conversation, which took place outdoors, Portnoy asked the president to do a video chat with his father and approached Trump while holding his cellphone in selfie mode.
“Don’t worry about socially distancing,” Trump said with a grin, getting up and moving next to Portnoy to get in the camera’s frame.
The following day, the White House distributed a photo of Trump posing next to former NFL quarterback Brett Favre during a round of golf at Bedminster.
White House aides emphasized that all who come into contact with Trump undergo testing. But the rapid tests, provided by Abbott Laboratories, have shown some false negative results, according to several studies. In May, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued an alert over Abbott tests, though the company has rebutted the studies.
“There are certain things a president has to do to be with other people, and we as a society have to accept that the president will have more testing to ensure he is safe,” said Rochelle Walensky, chief of the division of infectious diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital. “It’s also the president’s responsibility to keep society safe, and he needs to set an example about not crowding, and we’re not always seeing that example set.”
Even the White House’s testing regime has had lapses. During his trip to the Tampa area last week, Trump presided over a coronavirus and storm preparation roundtable with federal and local officials at a private golf club where he was later set to hold a campaign fundraiser. In a small conference room, the president boasted that his administration had opened five new testing sites and distributed rapid testing kits to nursing homes across the state.
Among those in the confined space, according to people familiar with the event, was a local, three-member ABC News television crew that had been admitted by the White House to join Trump’s traveling press pool — which included a Washington Post reporter — despite not having been tested for the virus.
White House officials said all of the journalists, who were tightly clustered during the 45-minute event, wore face masks and none exhibited symptoms. An ABC News spokeswoman confirmed that the crew was not tested.
Zeke Miller, an Associated Press reporter who is president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, said the organization has raised “concerns about specific events” with the White House. He declined to elaborate.
During the return flight to Washington, Trump entered the press cabin to speak with reporters. Two days later, a journalist who was on the plane tested positive for the virus, though it is unclear how and when the person contracted it. That evening, the White House informed several journalists that they should enter self-quarantine out of precaution and would be barred from the White House grounds for two weeks.