What I Saw at the White House

Hours before President Trump left for Walter Reed, maskless staffers roamed the grounds. And no one asked me if I was sick.

Marine One in flight outside the White House
Win McNamee / Getty

On the White House grounds this morning, senior West Wing aides walked around without masks. They spoke with the press without masks. They huddled privately with one another and didn’t wear masks.

When I visited the White House in August, no one checked to see if I was running a fever or suppressing a hacking cough as I passed through the security booth. The ritual was the same today: I showed up hours after we’d learned that President Donald Trump had tested positive for the coronavirus, yet no one asked about my health. Instead, I was simply searched for weapons and allowed in.

I’ve written twice in recent months about the dangerous conditions around the president—about lax testing of journalists flying with him on Air Force One, about troubling working arrangements inside the executive mansion itself. Trump’s illness seems an outgrowth of the administration’s flagrant disregard for public-health precautions. And yet, there’s no sign of a real course correction: The practices today seemed every bit as lax. When Trump walked deliberately toward Marine One tonight, in a dark suit and matching mask, he waved to reporters who all day had been trying to find out information about his condition.

But he left a White House that, even though he’s been stricken with a potentially fatal disease, seemed no safer than at any other point in the pandemic. Officials don’t appear to have learned much from the nightmare.

As far as I could tell, the White House’s lone concession to the catastrophe unfolding before our eyes was that a few junior aides working in the suite of offices accessible to the press corps sat at their desks in masks. During my August trip, none of the aides breathing the same air in this cramped warren of offices had seen fit to wear one.

On this day, of all days, a mask would have seemed indispensable. But a senior White House official told the Associated Press this afternoon that masks amount to a “personal choice.” Larry Kudlow, the president’s top economic adviser, was effectively goaded into wearing one during an impromptu press conference today. Kudlow said he wanted to make sure the press could hear him while he kept his distance, and so he hadn’t worn a mask. When a reporter suggested that he set an example for the nation, he put one on.

When White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows spoke with reporters on the north driveway this morning, he didn’t wear one at all. In a seven-minute appearance, the barefaced Meadows efficiently demonstrated so much of what’s gone wrong with the White House’s handling of the pandemic. He opened not by talking about the shattering revelation that the 45th president of the United States is infected, but by touting monthly job numbers that might prove helpful to Trump’s reelection. Meadows spoke vaguely about “protocols in place” to keep everyone healthy. When CNN’s Jim Acosta asked him why he wasn’t wearing a mask, Meadows trotted out the same tired defense that the White House deployed from the start: He gets tested regularly.

But, of course, so does Trump. And yet Trump was inside, sick. “In true fashion,” Meadows said, his boss was probably watching TV and “critiquing the way that I’m answering these questions.”

Inside the building, the atmosphere seemed tense. A former administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity in order to be frank, told me he’s worried that he’s been exposed and plans to get tested. More people at the White House are getting infected, as Meadows predicted this morning they would. Yesterday came news that Trump’s senior adviser Hope Hicks was ill. Today it was a press aide who tested positive, along with a group of journalists.

Unless and until the White House starts taking this pandemic much more seriously, anyone visiting the grounds is at risk. The president has been for months. After my visit in August, I wrote that if I’d torn off my mask and had a coughing fit inside the White House, it didn’t seem like anyone would’ve especially cared. That felt true today too. But by then, it wouldn’t have mattered. Whatever illness I’d brought into the building would’ve already been in the air.