No White House reporter I’ve ever known was looking to harm anyone, much less the president of the United States, but the federal government never took chances. Covering Barack Obama and now Donald Trump, I can’t recall a single instance when the security cordon surrounding the president frayed. On every trip, my press colleagues and I were searched before we got anywhere near the commander in chief—our bags sniffed by specially trained dogs, our pockets wanded for weapons. If we left the presidential “bubble” to go to the restroom, we’d be checked all over again. Once, during a routine inspection, an agent removed my sound-blocking earmuffs from my backpack and peered suspiciously at the $20 piece of plastic. For the shooting range? he asked. For concentrating when I write, I said. He stuck them back in the bag.
On Tuesday, May 5, the White House press pool boarded Air Force One for a four-hour flight to Phoenix, where Trump toured a mask-making factory. Flying home, the president came back to the small press cabin and spoke off the record to the traveling press corps. Journalists on that plane hadn’t been tested for the coronavirus that day, or the day before. The last time they’d been tested was Sunday, May 3. In the 48 hours that followed, they could have picked up the virus and, conceivably, passed it to the president, his staff, or one another during the trip. (Let’s not forget that the tests aren’t foolproof: Reporters could have boarded the plane without anyone knowing they actually had the disease.)
No one would have been allowed on Air Force One without first getting searched for weapons. Yet here the journalists boarded with no guarantee they hadn’t recently contracted a potentially lethal and highly contagious virus. The episode illustrates how Trump, who likes to project a certain hypermasculine invincibility, has faced greater exposure than he might let on.
“There’s no question [Trump’s] behavior in many circumstances, from what I can see on the outside, puts him at risk,” says Ingrid Katz, the associate faculty director at the Harvard Global Health Institute. She cites his consistent refusal to wear a mask and his participation in meetings held indoors, where the virus is more easily transmitted. “If the goal is to really protect the president, certainly more precautions should be in place—including him wearing more protection,” such as a face covering.
It’s not clear that Trump has been taking the threat all that seriously. Determined to resume his travel routines in the face of the pandemic, the president in the months ahead could be putting Americans at unnecessary risk, including himself. After weeks holed up in the White House, Trump is venturing out more and more. On Thursday, he toured a medical-distribution warehouse in the battleground state of Pennsylvania, where, in his remarks, he took a swipe at “Sleepy Joe Biden.” (Biden is riding out the crisis inside his house in Delaware, campaigning virtually from a studio set up in his basement.) After his trip to Phoenix, Trump tweeted a campaign-style video of the visit, set to stirring music and filled with images of the American flag.
A White House spokesperson, Judd Deere, told me that the administration is “taking every precaution” to protect Trump around the clock. The Secret Service said the same. “While we continually assess the environment in which we conduct our protective operations, we will not discuss the manner in which we conduct them,” a spokesperson told me. “Since the beginning of this pandemic, the Secret Service has been working with all of our public-safety partners and the White House Medical Unit to ensure the safety and security of both our protected persons and our employees.”
One reason the president must be judicious in the events he holds amid a public-health catastrophe is that Americans will take needless risks to meet him. It’s an opportunity that seldom comes along.
Last week, Trump appeared at an event at the World War II memorial in Washington, D.C., to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the allied victory over Germany. The ceremony served up images showcasing Trump’s role as commander in chief. Assembled were a small group of veterans who had fought in the war, all especially vulnerable to the coronavirus because of their age. As he walked slowly past the men and exchanged pleasantries, the veterans stood at attention. No one wore a mask, though Trump kept at a distance. “When he got to me, I said, ‘Queens County!’” Gregory Melikian, 95, told me, a reference to the New York City borough where Trump was born and raised. “He stopped and laughed and we talked for a second … He’s our president now. I have to respect him. We get one at a time.”
The veterans had all been tested for COVID-19 earlier in the day. Still, Melikian’s son had worried about the safety of his dad, who flew in from Phoenix for the ceremony.
“Kindly ask the president to have a Zoom event with our father,” Robert Melikian wrote in an email two days beforehand to Timothy Davis, the founder of Greatest Generations Foundation, which sponsored the veterans’ trip. “It’s dangerous for him to fly and participate in this event in person. And it’s dangerous for my mother when he comes back.” (Davis told me that the choice to attend was Gregory Melikian’s, “and his family needs to respect that decision.”)
Attentive to appearances, Trump is more apt to joke about others’ masks than wear one himself, despite federal public-health guidelines recommending them when social distancing is not feasible. He likened one reporter’s mask to a “catcher’s helmet.” Barbara Res, a former senior Trump Organization executive, told me that “he’ll never wear that thing because he won’t like the way he looks in it.”
Many aides followed Trump’s example for the first few months of the pandemic, until the White House imposed new rules earlier this week. Ernest Grant, the president of the American Nurses Association, was part of a group of nurses who met with Trump in the Oval Office for a National Nurses Day celebration last week. He’d been told to arrive three hours early so he could be tested for COVID-19 before seeing the president. As he walked through the complex, he later told me, “masks were few and far between … I do think [Trump] should be modeling the behavior he’s encouraging everyone to do. That’s his choice. I’ll leave it at that.”
The administration has emphasized that those in proximity to Trump are tested constantly. But the protocols haven’t kept the virus outside White House grounds. Already, it’s come to resemble a mini hot zone. One of the president’s personal valets tested positive for the virus. So did Vice President Mike Pence’s spokesperson, Katie Miller. At least three senior administration officials combatting the pandemic—including Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases—have entered self-quarantine of one form or another after having been exposed to the virus. “It’s scary to go to work,” Kevin Hassett, a White House senior adviser, told CBS News.
Miller, who is the wife of the senior White House adviser Stephen Miller, spoke with reporters last week at an outdoor event in which Pence delivered medical equipment to a nursing home in the northern-Virginia suburbs. A photo shows that the press corps all wore masks; Miller did not. Standing a few feet away from her was Debra Saunders, a White House correspondent for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, who served as the pool reporter that day.
“I asked her some questions, and she did cough and she joked, I don’t have COVID,” Saunders told me. Miller had tested negative that day, but within 24 hours, she would test positive. Saunders has been in precautionary quarantine ever since. On Monday, the White House began requiring everyone to wear masks when they’re in the building, though not at their desks.
Trump remains the exception. On Wednesday, the president met with a pair of governors at the White House to discuss the response to the pandemic. He didn’t wear a mask, while Democratic Governor Jared Polis of Colorado kept one on for at least part of the meeting.
“I believe the president should make a clear statement that mask wearing is an important part of our culture for the time being, and convey to his followers that that’s the best thing they can do to protect the economy and protect their own lives,” Polis told me afterward.
Gregory Melikian is now back home in Phoenix with his 87-year-old wife, Emma. During the war, in May 1945, he sent out the coded message to the Allies announcing Germany’s surrender. Seventy-five years after Melikian survived the Nazis, his son now worries about him surviving the pandemic. He wasn’t tested for the virus after his return, and the family is now waiting and hoping that he wasn’t infected at some point during the trip. They won’t know for sure until next week, Robert told me. “The whole thing was unnecessary,” he said.