Most people admitted to the hospital are grateful if the staff makes them healthy. In President Donald Trump’s case, his doctors and top aides wanted to make him happy. Trump left Walter Reed National Military Medical Center this week even though he’s still sick, vulnerable to a relapse, and spreading the virus with each maskless exhalation. He resents perceptions that he’s frail and weak, and so his team fed the illusion that he’s vital and strong. Advisers arranged a triumphant car trip around the hospital so that he could wave to fans, exposing Secret Service agents to needless risk.
“What he really doesn’t like is being portrayed as ill, weak, or sick,” a senior administration official told me. “He decided to show everyone he was okay.”
By staging photo ops and a video of his premature return to the White House, Trump’s staff again seemed to cater first to the president’s emotional needs, rather than the country’s interests or even his own health. Trump craves adulation, and to succeed in his administration, aides have to make sure he gets it. This practice began on day one with a lie about Trump’s inauguration-crowd size and has become so ingrained in West Wing operations that aides have routinely sent him reports filled with ego-stroking tweets, news stories, and transcripts of cable-news commentary. As the pandemic took hold, Trump denied its severity, and a cadre of advisers indulged the delusion. “Because he was never properly loved, he requires attention and submission,” Mary Trump, the president’s niece and a fierce critic of his, told me. “He requires not ever being contradicted.”
Few would dare. Inside the White House, aides created a kind of alternative reality in which the threat is always receding, the boss always prevailing. In meetings with the president, “no one likes to tell him that some areas are catching fire” because of the virus, another senior administration official told me. “They only say, ‘Oh, we’re turning the corner.’ That goes on there all the time. There’s always a reluctance to talk about bad news. That permeates all the discussions.”
Olivia Troye attended every meeting of the White House’s coronavirus task force until her resignation in August. Signs posted in the West Wing urged people to wear masks, which sat in a basket near one of the entrances. Yet she felt conspicuous peer pressure to forgo them, which is likely how Trump wanted it. He practices a kind of mask avoidance, and his staff followed suit. Wearing a mask protects you and everyone around you, but for Trump it’s visual proof of an outbreak that’s still not contained. Waiting to meet with Vice President Mike Pence, head of the coronavirus task force, Troye would feel the judgmental gaze of barefaced colleagues walking past. “You’re the only one sitting there with a mask,” she said. “It’s very close quarters, and I won’t lie, there were times when I caved” and removed the mask. “You feel self-conscious.” (Administration officials have described her as a “disgruntled employee.” A 43-year-old Republican, she now supports Joe Biden’s candidacy.)
Over and over, the White House downplayed the danger in order to placate Trump. One episode that stands out for me was a news conference this summer in the Rose Garden. At first the chairs were spaced apart, in keeping with social-distancing guidelines. Then White House staff came and scrunched them together, creating an agreeable aesthetic that suggested the virus is in retreat. “Even you, I notice you’re starting to get much closer together,” Trump said, as if it were the journalists’ idea to arrange the seats so that they’re at increased risk of getting sick. “Looks much better, I must say.” (So much for appearances: Today, the White House is the world’s most famous hot spot. Trump is infected, as is the first lady, and some senior aides and the reporters who cover them.)
Behind closed doors, aides have been complicit in much the same sort of denialism. Troye recalls a coronavirus task force meeting in which Trump ignored the agenda and spent nearly an hour complaining about Fox News. The conversation veered back to the virus, but Trump interjected later and demanded that one of his aides call the network to complain. “Who’s going to call?” he said, Troye recalled. “We’ll take care of it, sir,” an aide replied. “He surrounds himself with people who he knows will let him have his way,” Troye said. “That’s the environment he created.”
As Trump touted progress against the virus, aides scurried to make the boasts sound true. They pored over statistics, cutting and slicing the numbers to present the most favorable picture possible, Troye told me. “There was an effort to manipulate the data,” she said. “People were tasked to figure out how to portray the data in a manner that showed the pandemic was less severe than it was. This happened repeatedly during my tenure there.”
“This is a very hard situation when the science and the data don’t really align with the message that they want to be conveying.”
At some point, most likely when Trump is no longer in power, the U.S. will open an inquiry into the pandemic, examining how the world’s most powerful country wound up with the world’s highest death toll. No doubt officials will look into the shameful politicization of once-respected agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
They’ll ask why masks were so scarce. But an important reason for the virus’s spread is a familiar human story of hubris and weakness: a president lacking the emotional maturity to admit error and acknowledge a problem, surrounded by advisers afraid to confront him about his failings. “Imagine that a parent does that to a child. What do you get? You get a monster,” Mary Trump said.
Yesterday afternoon, Trump left the residence and showed up unexpectedly in the Oval Office, the heart of a West Wing space that is more confined and unventilated than people might suspect. In doing so, he brought the virus that much closer to a staff that’s already been stricken by its spread. We don’t know yet if anyone tried to stop him from leaving isolation, but if they did, he didn’t listen. Or maybe, given the history, they encouraged the idea.