The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Few masks, little distancing: Trump celebrates at crowded White House party largely devoid of coronavirus precautions

President Trump formally accepted the Republican nomination on the final night of the GOP convention on Aug. 27. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

President Trump celebrated his renomination Thursday with a crowded party at the White House that offered a jarring contrast with a nation that is still widely shut down over fears of the coronavirus pandemic whose spread remains uncontrolled.

More than 1,500 supporters poured onto the South Lawn for his formal acceptance speech to cap the Republican National Convention, and most were not wearing masks, even though they were seated closely together in white folding chairs.

The overwhelming majority of guests were not administered rapid coronavirus tests, Trump campaign and convention officials said, despite their relative proximity to the president and other White House officials. A White House official said it was logistically unfeasible to test such a large number of people.

Two attendees said in interviews that they were not offered tests and were not even put through a more basic screening, such as being questioned whether they had any symptoms, such as coughs, or taking their temperature. They spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk frankly.

The spectacle offered Trump a reasonable facsimile of the traditionally raucous nominating convention that was canceled this year because of the pandemic. A large stage was set up just beyond the White House portico, lined with dozens of American flags — a dramatic backdrop that allowed the president to wield the visual power of his office at a campaign event despite federal regulations that seek to limit such activities.

The program also projected the image to millions watching on television that a president whose public approval ratings have fallen over widespread disapproval of his handling of the pandemic has returned to business as usual, even if most Americans have not.

Medical authorities said the White House setting offered potential dangers of community spread and set another bad example at a time when most infectious-disease experts are warning that the public must continue to wear masks, maintain social distancing and limit large gatherings.

More than 177,000 Americans have died of the virus, among the highest rates of death in the world. Trump has flouted social distancing guidelines at official White House events, and he has pushed to reopen schools, resume college sports and restart other sectors of the economy despite warnings from the federal government’s own experts that doing so is likely to create new spikes of infection.

“When you look at the way the president has handled the pandemic, it has basically been one evasion after another evasion,” said Amesh Adalja, an ­infectious-disease expert at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security. “And when you see this type of event and the way he is acting and the way he is allowing his supporters to act, it cements the fact that they have never taken this outbreak seriously from the beginning.”

Midway through his address, Trump sought to defend his handling of the virus by repeating his efforts to blame China, where the first cases were discovered, and offering an incomplete picture of his administration’s performance that included numerous falsehoods.

For weeks starting in mid-January, the president ignored warnings from U.S. intelligence officials that the virus presented a risk to Americans, and his administration was slow in ramping up a national testing program that remains inadequate.

Trump, in his remarks, vowed that a vaccine will be available to the public before the end of the year despite scant evidence that scientists are on that rapid track. He touted his push to reopen the economy as a sensible campaign to limit financial hardship, even though medical authorities in his own administration have warned that reopening too quickly caused a spike in cases and deaths this summer.

The president attacked Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden over his plans to issue a national mask mandate and enact other safeguards.

“Biden’s plan is not a solution to the virus, but rather it’s a surrender to the virus,” Trump said. He asked the audience to stand and applaud for several health-care workers who were among the guests.

Hours ahead of Trump’s remarks, the White House announced a $760 million deal to provide 150 million rapid coronavirus tests.

The setting of Trump’s convention speech was not discussed at meetings of the White House’s coronavirus task force, which is led by Vice President Pence, and federal government physicians were not involved in coordinating the event, according to a person familiar with the planning who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations.

As Trump spoke, his family was seated onstage and many Cabinet members were in the front rows. Most not wearing masks. One exception was Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar.

During the Democratic National Convention last week, Biden said Trump “failed in his most basic duty to the nation: He’s failed to protect us.”

Though Democrats made the pandemic a centerpiece of their convention, Republicans largely skirted the issue or attempted to defend Trump.

“Let’s be very honest about it. No one person and no one place could have anticipated the challenges that [the virus] would bring,” said Dana White, president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship and a friend to Trump. “But President Trump has faced all these obstacles head on.”

Though Biden has drastically limited his public campaign events, Trump has been frustrated that he has been unable to hold large campaign rallies. After a poorly attended rally in Tulsa in late June, where only about 6,000 people attended an event in an arena that seats more than 20,000, Trump’s campaign canceled a rally in New Hampshire in July. Trump campaign officials have said they are unlikely to hold large-scale events ahead of the Nov. 3 election.

Both the Republicans and Democrats canceled their traditional conventions, which had been scheduled for Charlotte and Milwaukee, respectively. But they went down strikingly different paths in how they mapped out a replacement event.

Last week, the Democrats staged a largely virtual convention, with speakers isolated in different parts of the country. Only Biden and his running mate Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) spoke from a traditional stage — at a convention center in Wilmington, Del., where only a handful of reporters, seated far apart, were watching live.

The two wore masks during a fireworks program that was held outside after Biden’s address.

This week, the Republican National Convention has included a speech from first lady Melania Trump before dozens of guests in the Rose Garden and a speech from Pence before more than 100 at the Fort McHenry National Memorial in Baltimore.

Most in the crowd at both events were not wearing masks, including a number of elderly, disabled military veterans at Fort McHenry. Guests at Pence’s address were not tested for the coronavirus either, officials said, though their temperatures were taken and they were questioned about recent travel and symptoms, attendees said.

After Pence’s remarks, he and second lady Karen Pence, along with the president and Melania Trump, approached the guests. Although the two couples attempted to remain more than six feet apart, they posed for photos and Pence offered at least one guest a fist bump.