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Trump tested positive for coronavirus before first debate with Biden, three former aides say

Then-President Donald Trump departs the White House with then-chief of staff Mark Meadows on Oct. 21, 2020.
Then-President Donald Trump departs the White House with then-chief of staff Mark Meadows on Oct. 21, 2020. (Amanda Voisard/for The Washington Post)
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President Donald Trump tested positive for the coronavirus days before he shared the debate stage with then-Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden in late September 2020, according to his former chief of staff and two others familiar with the former president’s test — a stunning revelation that illustrates the dismissive approach to the dangers posed by the virus in Trump’s inner circle.

Trump’s positive test for the virus was Sept. 26, 2020, according to an account by former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows in a new book obtained by the Guardian newspaper. The Meadows account of the positive result was confirmed Wednesday by two former aides who requested anonymity to discuss their knowledge of the former president’s health.

The timing means Trump would have had reason to believe he was infected with the coronavirus three days before the Sept. 29 presidential debate and six days before he was hospitalized for covid-19 at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. The disclosure also provides new evidence of Trump’s often reckless and cavalier approach to his health and the health of those around him as he struggled through a chaotic response to the pandemic.

Since President Trump tested positive for the coronavirus, White House officials have at times given incomplete or contradictory statements about his diagnosis. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

The White House did not reveal the positive test publicly or inform debate organizers at the time. In “The Chief’s Chief,” due to be published next week, Meadows writes that Trump received a negative result from a different test shortly after his positive one.

In a statement Wednesday morning, Trump denied Meadows’s account of events.

“The story of me having COVID before, or during, the first debate is Fake News,” Trump said. “In fact, a test revealed that I did not have COVID before the debate.”

The reckless timeline of Trump’s positive coronavirus test

The new details about Trump’s health — and the decision to hide a positive test — come as the former president is strongly considering mounting a bid to reclaim the White House, according to aides.

In addition to potentially endangering his 77-year-old Democratic rival, the then-74-year-old president also may have put moderator Chris Wallace and dozens of staff in danger during the 90-minute debate. Trump also risked transmitting the virus to others in other close interactions he had between the Sept. 26 test and his Oct. 2 hospitalization.

At least six of Trump’s aides who had close interactions with him starting Sept. 26 later tested positive for covid, including former first lady Melania Trump, senior adviser Hope Hicks, policy adviser Stephen Miller and press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, according to a tally by The Washington Post.

Trump on Wednesday was furious that Meadows revealed the anecdote in his forthcoming book and that it was published via the liberal-leaning Guardian, according to a person familiar with the former president’s reaction, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to reveal a private conversation.

A Meadows spokesman issued a statement later Wednesday attempting to minimize the revelation.

“The book is quite clearly referring to a ‘false positive’ rapid test the president received,” said the spokesman, Ben Williamson. “After the initial positive, he received multiple confirmatory tests that came back negative. The President did not have COVID before or during the debate.”

Experts say there is no way to know which of the tests might have been a false result, and both came just six days before he was hospitalized.

The allegations emerge as a growing number of people in Trump’s orbit increasingly believe that he plans to run for president again in 2024. In conversations with allies, one person who has been in touch with both the former president and his confidants said Trump talks as if he’s running — “there’s never an ‘if’ or any hedging,” this person said — including claiming that “everyone” is eager to be his running mate.

President Biden was asked about the reports Wednesday after he delivered a speech on the nation’s clogged supply chains. “I don’t think about the former president,” Biden said.

During the White House briefing Wednesday, Anthony S. Fauci, a top infectious-diseases expert under both presidents, said he did not know about Trump’s test. “I certainly was not aware of his test positivity or negativity,” Fauci said.

“I’m not going to specifically talk about who put who at risk,” Fauci added. “If you test positive, you should be prudent and self-quarantine yourself.”

Coronavirus cases and deaths in the U.S.

According to the Guardian account of his book, Meadows wrote that Trump believed both candidates had to show a negative test 72 hours before the debate but that “nothing was going to stop [Trump] from going out there” at the first presidential debate in Cleveland. It is not clear exactly when either test was administered Sept. 26 — the debate started at 9 p.m. Sept. 29.

Biden’s team pushed hard in debate negotiations to ensure that safety protocols were in place. The two candidates did not shake hands out of concerns about covid, and the two podiums were placed far apart.

The Cleveland Clinic, the hospital system that hosted the debate, said in a statement Oct. 2, 2020 — the day that Trump was hospitalized for covid — that it had relied on the campaigns’ self-disclosures about whether Trump and other officials had previously tested positive.

“Based on what we know about the virus and the safety measures we had in place, we believe there is low risk of exposure to our guests,” the clinic said at the time.

The clinic declined to answer questions Wednesday about whether its risk assessment had changed after Meadows’s claims, whether the clinic should have conducted its own testing and how many of its own staff had potentially been exposed to Trump.

Frank Fahrenkopf, co-chairman of the Commission on Presidential Debates, said the panel had no idea about a positive test from Trump. “Of course we believed he was negative. If he was positive, we wouldn’t have been able to go forward,” he said.

At the first debate, Fahrenkopf said, Trump’s entourage took their masks off as soon as they got into the room after being asked to wear them, and refused to put them back on even after a doctor from the Cleveland Clinic requested that the face coverings be used.

Many of the people in the hall, including him, were tested by the Cleveland Clinic on-site, Fahrenkopf said. But the candidates and their teams were not tested there.

According to the Guardian’s summary of Meadows’s book, Trump was tested first with an unnamed “old model kit,” which produced a positive result. With Trump already aboard Air Force One, the White House appeared to rerun the same sample with one of Abbott’s Binax rapid antigen tests, which produced a negative result.

Those tactics expressly conflict with recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that a positive antigen test should be followed by a second, more accurate polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, which requires a fresh sample and is performed in a laboratory.

Some politicians close to Trump publicly warned last year that rapid antigen tests could be unreliable and that follow-up PCR testing was necessary.

Meadows under fire as Trump chief of staff for handling of pandemic and other crises

Meadows was Trump’s fourth chief of staff during his four-year term in office. Previously he served as member of Congress representing North Carolina. He has stayed in touch with the former president since joining the Conservative Partnership Institute and has held fundraising and political events at the former president’s club.

As chief of staff he was highly skeptical of covid and would instruct White House staff, including members of the vice president’s staff, not to disclose to the public when they had tested positive for the coronavirus, according to former Trump aides.

He was regularly dismissive of White House and administration doctors and advised Trump against encouraging masks and taking more drastic action.

Meadows wrote in his book that Trump acted as though he had “full permission to press on as if nothing had happened” upon receiving the negative test after his initial positive test Sept. 26. But Meadows wrote that he “instructed everyone in his immediate circle to treat him as if he was positive,” according to the excerpts.

“I didn’t want to take any unnecessary risks, but I also didn’t want to alarm the public if there was nothing to worry about,” Meadows wrote, according to the newspaper.

It was not until 1 a.m. on Oct. 2 that Trump revealed that he and his wife had tested positive for the virus. Trump was taken to Walter Reed for treatment later that day. By that point, a host of White House officials had also tested positive for the coronavirus.

Meadows stayed at Walter Reed during much of Trump’s stay, and afterward the president repeatedly praised Meadows for his loyalty, claiming that no one but Meadows would have done that for him, according to a senior Trump White House official who was familiar with the dynamic.

In the book Meadows said that he alerted aides close to Trump about the possibility that the president had covid, but a half-dozen aides contacted Wednesday by The Post said they were not aware of the positive test.

When he was out of the hospital, Trump was pressed about his testing timeline during an NBC News town hall.

“I don’t know, I don’t even remember,” Trump said when asked if he had a test done the day of the Sept. 29 debate.

Trump wavered in his answer. “I probably did, and I took a test the day before,” Trump said at one point.

Later he said, “Possibly I did, possibly I didn’t.”

In addition to attending the debate, Trump participated in a number of other events after his positive diagnosis that potentially put scores of others at risk, including a campaign rally in Pennsylvania, an indoor news conference at the White House and a close-quarters exchange with reporters aboard Air Force One.

After one event with Gold Star families, the president described the close contact he had with people who had lost their loved ones in the military. It took place Sept. 27 — the day after Trump’s positive test result.

“They come within an inch of my face sometimes, and they want to hug me, they want to kiss me, and they do,” Trump said describing the event in later and suggesting that one of the family members infected him. “And frankly, I’m not telling them to back up. I’m not doing it. But it’s obviously dangerous.”

Tyler Pager and Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.

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