WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump suggested he contracted the coronavirus at a White House event that honored the families of those who have lost loved ones during U.S. military service, but the president didn’t offer any proof from contact tracing or genetic analysis linking his infection to that specific ceremony.
Trump made the comments during a Thursday interview with the Fox Business Network’s Maria Bartiromo. The event with the Gold Star families took place inside the White House on Sept. 27, the day after more than a hundred people gathered at the White House, many without masks, to mark Trump’s nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court.
Trump’s singling out of the Gold Star family event as the source of his illness — even though far more people who attended the Barrett reception the prior day so far have publicly said they tested positive for the coronavirus — marked an effort to cast his coronavirus infection as the result of selfless presidential service to grieving military families rather than his own disregard for health precautions.
The president has regularly refused to wear a mask, encouraging others at the White House not to wear them, and made fun of Democratic challenger Joe Biden for wearing one during a debate days before the president’s COVID-19 diagnosis became public.
So far, none of the Gold Star family attendees appear to have publicly reported coming down with COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, in the days since the event. The Washington Post, however, was unable to reach all the attendees.
In his interview with Fox Business on Thursday, Trump said he didn’t want to cancel the Gold Star families event, as he recalled how each family came up to him and first lady Melania Trump at the White House and shared stories about the service members they lost.
“They tell me these stories, and I can’t say, ‘Back up, stand ten feet, I just can’t do it,’” Trump said. “And I went through like 35 people and everyone had a different story.”
Trump said the families were talking about loved ones they lost in Iraq and Afghanistan and in certain instances came “within an inch of my face.”
Trump didn’t say why he believes he contracted the virus at the Gold Star family event rather than the event the previous day marking Barrett’s nomination or other meetings he held in the following days.
Many people who attended the Sept. 26 Barrett event without masks have tested positive for the virus, including former White House counselor Kellyanne Conway; White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany; Sens. Thom Tillis, R-N.C.; and Mike Lee, R-Utah; Notre Dame President the Rev. John Jenkins; Harvest Christian Pastor Greg Laurie and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Christie was also one of several people who helped Trump prepare for the first presidential debate held on Sept. 29 that have tested positive for the coronavirus, including Christie, senior policy adviser Stephen Miller and Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien.
Fewer people so far appear to have tested positive after attending the Sept. 27 Gold Star families event, although The Post was unable to do a definitive survey of all the attendees. Adm. Charles Ray, vice commandant of the Coast Guard, who attended the Gold Star event, has tested positive, but other top Pentagon leaders who were there, including Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, have tested negative in the days since.
The Gold Star family members who attended the White House event were subject to a rapid coronavirus test, which had to come back negative for them to enter. During the candlelight ceremony and meetings with Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, the families were not required to wear masks, because they had already been tested.
Timothy Davis, president and chief executive of the Greatest Generations Foundation, a nonprofit that helped families attend the White House event, said in a statement that none of the families the organization assisted had become sick or exhibited symptoms of COVID-19.
“All Gold Star Family attendees invited to the Gold Star Family event at the White House on September 27 were all tested by the White House medical team before entering the White House had tested negative for the Coronavirus,” Davis said. “Considering it has been 12-days since the event, all Gold Star Family are all doing well and exhibit no symptoms of COVID-19.”
One person familiar with the event said that while families were able to take pictures with Trump, they were told in advance not to touch the president. Family members were able to tour the White House before meeting with the president and attending a candlelight ceremony in the East Room. The White House posted a video montage of the event online.
The Sept. 27 ceremony recognized the families of 20 deceased service members, according to a copy of the event program obtained by The Washington Post.
Rebekah Holler Ashworth, whose brother, Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Luke Holler, was killed in 2006 by a roadside bomb in Iraq and was honored at the event, she said she felt very comfortable with the testing and precautions, noting that no one from her family’s seven-person group had become ill.
“It was very, very well done,” Ashworth said. “Nobody that I know from that event, the Gold Star families, nobody has had any issues since.”
Ashworth said attendees didn’t shake hands and were served food in individual portions to limit the possibility of infection, and everyone underwent a rapid test before entering. She said her family didn’t make any physical contact with the president, but did stand by him to get a picture.
The family had a brief discussion with Trump and the first lady before moving on, she said, describing the event as very moving and praising the president for the personal attention he devoted to the stories of each family.
“It was a phenomenal event,” Ashworth said. “We were truly, truly honored by him, not just our fallen hero but our family. His heart for the veterans and for the families that are with them really, really, really stuck out.”
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The Washington Post’s Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.