WASHINGTON – The ceremony in the White House Rose Garden last Saturday was a triumphal flashback to the Before Times – before public health guidelines restricted mass gatherings, before people were urged to wear masks and socially distance.
President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump welcomed more than 150 guests as the president formally introduced Judge Amy Coney Barrett, his nominee for the Supreme Court. A handful of Republican senators were there, including Mike Lee of Utah, who hugged and mingled with guests. So was Kellyanne Conway, the recently departed senior counselor to the president, as well as the Rev. John Jenkins, the president of the University of Notre Dame, who left his Indiana campus where a coronavirus outbreak had recently occurred to celebrate an alumna’s nomination.
Spirits were high. Finally, Trump was steering the national discussion away from the coronavirus pandemic – which had already killed more than 200,000 people in the United States and was still raging – to more favorable terrain, a possible conservative realignment of the Supreme Court.
Attendees were so confident that the contagion would not invade their seemingly safe space at the White House that, according to Jenkins, after guests tested negative that day they were instructed they no longer needed to cover their faces. The no-mask mantra applied indoors as well. Cabinet members, senators, Barrett family members and others mixed unencumbered at tightly packed, indoor receptions in the White House’s Diplomatic Room and Cabinet Room.
Five days later, that feeling of invincibility was cruelly punctured. On Thursday, counselor to the president Hope Hicks, who reported feeling symptoms during a trip with the president to Minnesota on Wednesday, tested positive for the virus. Early Friday morning, Trump announced that he and the first lady also had tested positive and had begun isolating inside the White House residence.
On Friday, Lee Conway and Jenkins announced that they, too, had tested positive, as did Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., who was at the ceremony, and Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, who had recently spent time with the president, including at an indoor fundraiser last week. At least three journalists who had been at White House events in the past week also reported testing positive on Friday. And White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said he was bracing for additional infections among administration officials.
By Friday afternoon, Trump’s condition had worsened, officials said, though they maintained he was “in good spirits.” The president had a low-grade fever, a cough and nasal congestion, among other symptoms, according to two people familiar with his condition who, like others interviewed for this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly discuss a sensitive matter.
Trump was transported about 6:16 p.m. Friday to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for further treatment out of what the White House described as an abundance of caution.
As Trump’s condition deteriorated during the day Friday, the president and his team ultimately made the decision to send him to Walter Reed preemptively – and, from a public relations perspective, when he was still able to walk to Marine One on his own, according to one outside adviser in frequent contact with White House officials. They feared the possibility of a further decline, and what that might mean, both for the president’s health and his political optics.
The White House outbreak thrust Washington into a state of heightened alarm Friday, with uncertainty one month before the election about the health of the president, whose age of 74, as well as additional co-morbidities – obesity, high cholesterol and slightly elevated blood pressure – increase his risks of a negative outcome.
Though White House officials have begun contact tracing to try to identify the origin of the outbreak, it is not publicly known whether the Rose Garden announcement of Barrett’s nomination was a superspreader event.
Still, the jarring contrast between the carefree, cavalier attitude toward the virus on display in the Rose Garden Saturday and the pernicious awakening that occurred Thursday night resembles a Shakespearean tragedy.
The White House’s handling of the period between the first known symptoms – those of Hicks on Wednesday – and the president’s infection, which was confirmed about 1 a.m. Friday, is what experts considered a case study in irresponsibility and mismanagement.
Administration officials at first were not transparent with the public, and have not been forthcoming with detailed information about Trump’s condition since. Meadows told reporters Friday morning only that Trump was experiencing “mild symptoms” and would not elaborate on what those symptoms were.
“I’m not going to get into any particular treatment that he may or may not have,” Meadows said.
On Friday afternoon, the White House distributed a memorandum by White House physician Sean Conley describing Trump as “fatigued but in good spirits.” Though Conley listed the drugs he had administered, he provided to the public no measurements of the president’s condition, nor did he nor any other knowledgeable source submit to questions from journalists.
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Source: Stamford Advocate