Washington – Standing well apart on the debate stage, President Donald Trump and his Democratic opponent Joe Biden looked out at an odd sight – one section of the room dutifully in masks, the other section flagrantly without.
The mostly bare-faced contingent was made up of Trump’s VIP guests, who had flouted the rules by removing their masks once inside the hall despite the best efforts of the debate’s health advisers from the Cleveland Clinic to keep everyone safe. It was a conspicuous act of rebellion, reflecting divisions writ large across the country.
But what Trump calls the “invisible enemy” was spreading – before the debate, during it, after it, or some combination – and now it has spread to him.
President Donald Trump arrives at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, in Bethesda, Md., Friday, Oct. 2, 2020, on Marine One helicopter after he tested positive for COVID-19. White House chief of staff Mark Meadows is at second from left. (Photo: Jacquelyn Martin, AP)
No one knows how, when or from whom Trump became infected. Nor is it established who, if anyone, has contracted the disease from him. But to retrace some of his steps over the last week is to see risk at multiple turns and an abundance of opportunity for infection.
This was the case day after day and right up until a few hours before his positive diagnosis, as he took a contingent to New Jersey for a fund-raiser with the White House knowing he’d been close to someone sick with COVID-19.
The result is that one of the most protected people on the planet has caught a disease that has killed more than 1 million people worldwide, more than 200,000 of them in the United States.
A look at the days leading up to it:
After a spirited send-off from the White House grounds, Trump and members of his team headed to Cleveland and the raucous debate. Adviser Hope Hicks was among them.
Everyone admitted to the hall had been tested in advance by his or her own team and come up negative, the Cleveland Clinic said in a statement. “We had requirements to maintain a safe environment that align with CDC guidelines – including social distancing, hand sanitizing, temperature checks and masking.”
Such steps do not rule out the possibility that someone could have had a coronavirus infection that was not yet detectable by tests. The virus can incubate for days before a test will uncover it.
And Trump’s adult children and senior staff stripped off their masks for the duration of the debate, violating the rules.
Moderator Chris Wallace, seated on stage, noted that when Biden’s VIP guests, including his wife, Jill, walked in, they were wearing masks and kept them on throughout the debate.
“I don’t wear a mask like him,” Trump said of Biden mockingly in the debate. “Every time you see him, he’s got a mask. He could be speaking 200 feet away from him and he shows up with the biggest mask I’ve ever seen.”
Said Biden: “He’s been totally irresponsible the way in which he has handled the social distancing and people wearing masks, basically encouraged them not to. He’s a fool on this.”
Trump and his team returned late to Washington, with much more on tap for the week and the election now just a month away.
People around Trump are tested daily for the coronavirus and Hicks had her test in the morning, along with the others to be traveling with him for the day. Her results were negative. She joined others aboard Marine One for the 15-minute or so flight to Air Force One waiting for them at Joint Base Andrews.
Marine One is a single-cabin chopper, normally seating 10, a noisy aircraft with no partitions except between the president and the cockpit. Once at Andrews, it was on to Minnesota for a fund-raiser followed by an outdoor rally in Duluth.
On the ground in Minnesota, Hicks reported feeling unwell.
It was blustery and cold in Duluth with a bit of a mist. As usual, few in the crowd wore masks. They heard Trump make his dubious promise of a vaccine by the end of the year and congratulate himself for doing a great job. “On November 3rd, Minnesota will decide whether we end this pandemic, defeat the virus, and return to record prosperity,” he said. “Either way, we’re returning. Either way.”
Trump’s speech was notably shorter than usual, 45 minutes instead of the usual one to two hours.
After his remarks, he mingled on stage briefly, pumping his fist to the beat of the Village People and waving to folks in the crowd. He did not speak to reporters before boarding Air Force One nor come back to speak with them on the flight.
Hicks kept apart from others on the big plane coming back and did not take the crowded Marine One back to the White House once at Andrews.
On Thursday morning, Hicks got another test. This time it was positive.
The results came not long before the president was set to lift off in Marine One for a fundraiser at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey.
Hicks’ diagnosis affirmed that Trump had been in close proximity to someone infected with the virus. That’s when you should quarantine, according to public-health guidelines. But Trump went ahead with the trip. Not only that, but others who had also been around Hicks were not immediately told about her positive test.
The White House worked furiously to swap out staff who had been in close contact with Hicks and replace them with others. Spokesman Judd Deere was swapped in at the last minute, without being told why. White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany did not make the trip. White House officials said they began learning of Hicks’ positive test after Trump boarded Marine One to start his journey to New Jersey.
Comedian Joe Piscopo attended the outdoor Bedminster fundraiser and told The Associated Press by phone that “it was meticulously run, from the Secret Service to COVID testing to masking.”
“I’ve never seen him more on top of his game – warm, funny, vulnerable,” Piscopo said. “Like we say in New Jersey, he’s an animal. He’s going to be fine, and I mean that in a good way.”
This chain of events does not establish how or where Trump got the virus. Given the highly variable period between infection and sickness – anywhere from a few days to two weeks – he could have contracted it on any number of occasions from a variety of people.
It could have been at the week-old Rose Garden event where Trump announced Amy Coney Barrett as his Supreme Court choice, a gathering where three attendees – Sens. Mike Lee of Arizona and Thom Tillis of North Carolina, and University of Notre Dame President John I. Jenkins – were later diagnosed with the disease.
Or it could have been his rally in Pennsylvania that night, his event with a few lawmakers and Lordstown, Ohio, truck executives Monday – or his routine interactions anytime in the incubation period.
Many hours later, Trump confirmed Hicks had tested positive and told Fox News he and his wife had been tested and were prepared to quarantine if necessary.
At 12:54 a.m., Trump tweeted: “Tonight, @FLOTUS and I tested positive for COVID-19. We will begin our quarantine and recovery process immediately. We will get through this TOGETHER!” Flotus refers to Melania Trump, the first lady, who also has COVID-19.
Well wishes came in from around the world and from across the political divide, some of them with an I-told-you-so undertone.
Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi pronounced the news “tragic, it’s very sad,” but also unsurprising given actions by Trump that were “sort of a brazen invitation for this to happen.” Biden kept to a simple statement saying “We will continue to pray for the health and safety of the president and his family.”
Despite the abject failure to keep the president protected from the virus, White House officials defended their current protocols as well thought out. And masks still won’t be required on the White House grounds for all West Wing employees. “Wearing a mask,” said one official, “is a personal choice.”
Associated Press writers Thalia Beaty in New York and Zeke Miller and Kevin Freking in Washington contributed to this report.
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