White House, Petri Dish

What I saw inside 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue today is cause for alarm.

TriggerPhoto / Getty / NIAID / The Atlantic

During a reporting trip to the White House in late May, I passed through a magnetometer and met a government agent who pointed an infrared thermometer at my forehead. At that point, the United States was seeing about 21,000 new coronavirus cases a day. Had I been coughing or experienced any recent headaches? the agent asked. No, I said, and was allowed into the building. Today, the country is experiencing about twice as many new positive cases each day. Yet when I arrived at the White House this morning, I was struck by the lack of safety protocols in place.

The most famous address in America now feels like a coronavirus breeding ground. Later tonight, President Trump will address the nation from the White House’s South Lawn, where hundreds of chairs have been arranged with little regard for social distancing.

This afternoon, Secret Service agents checked to see if I was armed, but no one asked if I was ill. Upon reaching the entrance to the press-briefing room, I found the first indication that the nation is in the midst of a historic pandemic. A sign posted by the White House Correspondents’ Association instructed journalists to wear a mask and “spend as little time here as possible.” Beyond that, it was business as usual.

The West Wing is a smaller space than people imagine, and with credentials, a reporter can venture far enough to get a good feel for the building’s culture. Post up in the hallways and you might see President Donald Trump stride by on his way to the colonnade leading to the residence. Linger long enough in the short corridor a few paces from the Oval Office and you may spot senior adviser Jared Kushner or other top officials walking into the press secretary’s office. Lots of powerful people move freely through a congested warren of offices, talking to one another, breathing shared air.

A memo to White House staff in May ordered employees to wear masks in the building except when sitting at their desks—a mandate that followed reports of two West Wing employees testing positive for the virus. When I passed by aides at their desks today, virtually none was wearing a mask. This may be fine in highly controlled environments—such as the NBA’s “bubble,” which has effectively kept the virus at bay. But when you’re introducing outsiders into the mix, as was the case today, it’s a far riskier proposition.

Trump is regularly tested for the virus, as are aides and reporters who are in his presence, but others like me can get perilously close to those who interact with the commander in chief. Some of the West Wing desks are spaced so closely together, and some of the offices are so cramped, that it’s tough to see how people avoid exposure at all. In one small office today, two aides stood and spoke to each other without masks. Young aides sat at desks in an open bullpen-style space without masks. Walking through the hallways accessible to the press, I wore a mask, but I haven’t been tested for COVID-19; had I removed my mask for some reason and coughed or sneezed, there was no hint of a mask patrol prepared to whisk me out the building. The vibe was shockingly lax.

The reason is clear enough: For Trump, shirking daily mask use seems like a culture-war triumph. A mask is both an emblem of the nanny state and a visual symbol of a continuing public-health calamity that could ultimately cost him reelection—an unwelcome reminder of the death toll and economic carnage that have destroyed the fundamental argument he’d hoped to make to voters. “Wearing the mask would be to admit that he was wrong in his initial assessment of the seriousness of  COVID-19,” Mary Trump, the president’s niece and the author of a new book about him, told me.

Trump is desperate for the pandemic to end, but because it has spun out of control under his watch, the president and his circle have alighted on another approach: denial. Neither Trump nor his homeland-security chief, Chad Wolf, nor the crop of newly minted Americans wore masks at a naturalization ceremony in the White House on Tuesday night at the Republican National Convention. Later that night, Melania Trump delivered a Rose Garden speech to a predominantly maskless audience, with her unmasked husband watching from the front row.

In his speech to the Republican convention Tuesday night, Trump’s economic adviser Larry Kudlow referred to the virus in the past tense, as my colleague Russell Berman noted. “It was awful,” Kudlow said. It still is awful.

Not everyone is participating in the fantasy that the pandemic is behind us. On my way out of the building today, I passed a pair of janitors cleaning a break room. They both wore masks. They wanted to protect their health and that of their colleagues. Maybe that spirit will eventually catch on throughout the White House.