Though it has thrown the nation into chaos, the fact that Donald Trump has contracted the coronavirus should not be especially surprising—after all, he has been careless about measures to control the virus, and protect his own health, for months. Nor should it come as a surprise that the White House is offering partial, misleading, and contradictory information. That has been a reliable theme of the Trump presidency.
What does still shock is the recklessness with which Trump treated the health and lives of those closest to him. Despite being potentially exposed to a virus he described in February as “deadly stuff,” the president apparently took no measures to protect his political advisers, aides, and donors, and largely left them in the dark once he had tested positive.
Chris Christie, the former governor of New Jersey, helped prepare Trump in the days leading up to Tuesday night’s debate. He later said that no one at the sessions was wearing a mask. He reportedly learned of Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis only from news reports, and was not informed by the White House. Christie has now tested positive and been admitted to a hospital. Trump’s campaign manager, Bill Stepien, has also tested positive, and reportedly has flu-like symptoms. It’s unclear when Trump last got a coronavirus test, but the debate moderator, Chris Wallace, said he arrived too late to get one before Tuesday’s debate, and was allowed in on the “honor system,” a perilous choice for this president.
Trump’s indifference to the welfare of others extends to the circle of close advisers who surround him and the wider White House staff. As my colleague Peter Nicholas has reported, there have been practically no serious efforts at coronavirus control at the White House. Once Trump was diagnosed, aides were left confused and in the dark. According to reports from Axios and New York magazine, staffers had no information about the president’s condition and no instructions about what they should do for their own health.
At a press conference yesterday morning, the president’s team said that the White House medical unit and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were conducting contact tracing on those around the president, but The Washington Post reported that “there was little evidence on Saturday that the White House or the campaign had reached out to these potentially exposed people, or even circulated guidance to the rattled staffers within the White House complex.” It now appears that the CDC is not actually involved in tracing. As of today, senior White House staffers were still not wearing masks, which would help prevent them from further spreading the virus if infected.
Trump’s indifference extended far beyond the White House to the wealthy donors keeping his struggling reelection campaign afloat. The Trump adviser Hope Hicks began feeling ill Wednesday evening. By Thursday, Trump was reportedly showing some signs of illness, and was tested. Yet on Wednesday and Thursday, Trump went to fundraisers in Minnesota and New Jersey, respectively. At the Minnesota event, attendees sang karaoke, even though singing is an especially productive way to spread the virus. At the New Jersey event, attendees shelled out as much as $250,000 to hobnob with the president.
These donors, too, learned the news of Trump’s diagnosis from the media, and they were understandably panicked, according to CNBC. By Friday morning, they had received no communication. Later, the campaign sent a generic, unsigned email telling them to consult with a medical provider if they or their loved ones fell ill.
Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, a Republican, told CNN today that Ohio officials had not received any communication or information about contact tracing, even though members of the Trump team (and perhaps the president himself) were likely infected during Tuesday’s debate in Cleveland.
Trump’s behavior also endangers any number of other people, including the Democratic candidate, Joe Biden, and any members of his staff or family who attended the debate. (So far, Biden has tested negative, but experts say that he will not be in the clear for several days.)
But these are his political adversaries, and Trump has long since abandoned any pretense of being the president of all Americans. He openly demonizes half of the country, warning of radical leftists, socialists, and interlopers, and positions himself as the president of only those who are on his team. Yet Trumpism has always been built on contempt for his base. During the 2016 campaign, he claimed to hate the media, even while frantically courting its attention. He promised that Mexico would pay for a wall at the southern U.S. border, a patently false claim. As my colleague McKay Coppins recently reported, Trump mocks the Christians who form a crucial part of his backing.
Trump’s approach to the pandemic has been an extension of this contempt—not only for those Americans who don’t support him, but for all Americans. He has counseled the rapid reopening of the economy and schools, believing that it will benefit his reelection campaign, and tried to dampen worries about the virus, despite his own private musings about its lethality. Even after Herman Cain, a former Republican presidential candidate and steadfast backer, died of the coronavirus after attending a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Trump continued to hold in-person events and mock Biden for socially distancing, wearing a mask, and attending few in-person events.
At every turn, it has been possible for some of Trump’s supporters to comfort themselves: Well, yes, he’s disdainful of some people who back him; I am one of the chosen few whom he truly respects. The reckless disregard the president has shown even for his closest aides and donors this week should dispel that impression. It doesn’t matter how close with the president you are—there should be no expectation that he will make any effort to protect you from a deadly disease, or that this administration will act to inform you or help you if you’ve been exposed. After this week, why would anyone believe that Trump has their best interests at heart?