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Trump Hospitalized to Receive COVID Treatment
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Trump Hospitalized to Receive COVID Treatment

Two senators and a handful of White House officials have also tested positive.

Americans—at least those who aren’t night owls—awoke to the news Friday morning that President Donald Trump and his wife Melania had contracted COVID-19. Late Friday afternoon, news came that the president was headed to Walter Reed Hospital and would stay for a few days “out of an abundance of caution.”

Speculation centered around where Trump might have been exposed—he confirmed his and his wife’s positive tests after Bloomberg News reported Thursday night that White House aide Hope Hicks had tested positive Wednesday. There were also reports that Notre Dame President Rev. John I. Jenkins and Sens. Mike Lee and Thom Tillis, all of whom were at the White House when Trump introduced Amy Coney Barrett as his Supreme Court pick, had tested positive.

“President Trump remains in good spirits, has mild symptoms, and has been working throughout the day,” White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said in a statement on Friday. “Out of an abundance of caution, and at the recommendation of his physician and medical experts, the president will be working from the presidential offices at Walter Reed for the next few days.” Melania Trump is reportedly experiencing “mild symptoms” and will remain in quarantine.

“I want to thank everyone for the tremendous support,” the president said in a video posted on Twitter shortly before he left for Walter Reed. “I think I’m doing very well  but we’re going to make sure that things work out. The first lady is doing very well. So thank you very much. I appreciate it. I will never forget it. Thank you.”

On Friday’s episode of the Dispatch Podcast, Steve Hayes and Sarah Isgur discussed these momentous developments with Dr. Jonathan Reiner, a cardiologist, professor of medicine and surgery at George Washington University, former physician to Vice President Dick Cheney, and a consultant to the White House Medical Unit during the Bush, Obama, and Trump years. 

“The White House has tried to protect the president by testing everybody inside, by basically enveloping him in this cocoon of rapid tests, which are by their very nature imperfect,” Reiner said. “And someone close to the president has tested positive,” Reiner said on Friday of Hope Hicks. “What we’re seeing really is a microcosm of the pandemic as a whole. We’re seeing an infection spread and we’re seeing health officials trying to track down everyone who might have been exposed to the virus.” 

How did we get to this point? “It’s a failure of common sense,” Reiner said. He said that the White House could have prevented this situation by simply limiting the president’s face-to-face interactions with other staffers, conducting meetings via secure video link, and instituting a universal mask-wearing mandate for all White House staffers at all times and without exceptions.

Trump has downplayed the risk of the coronavirus for months now, continuously claiming the virus will “disappear” and often carrying out his duties in close proximity to other White House staffers without wearing a mask. “For those of us who know how viruses are spread—and it’s not that complicated—it was horrifying to see all these people in close proximity to the president,” Reiner said. “I thought it was really malpractice for the White House to allow so many people so close to the president.” 

Besides Tillis and Lee, GOP officials in Trump’s orbit who have tested positive for the virus include Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, campaign manager Bill Stepien, and former counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway. Vice President Mike Pence tested negative on Friday, as did speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, and Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, who shared a stage with Trump during the first presidential debate on Tuesday, also tested negative. (The New York Times is keeping an updated list here.)

Given the substantial proportion of asymptomatic carriers who contract COVID-19, mask-wearing and social distancing are still the most effective means of effectively preventing transmission of the virus. “If you’ve ever visited the West Wing, or the Eisenhower old executive office building next door, the hallways are teeming with people, so everyone in that environment should have been wearing a mask,” Reiner said. “What we heard this week is that that was the instinct of the NSC, to get everyone masked up, but it was discouraged by the president’s team because they didn’t like the look.” 

The National Security Council’s mask-wearing order reportedly tried to institute a stricter mask-wearing policy in the White House recently but was met with backlash from the West Wing. “If you have the whole West Wing running around wearing masks, it wasn’t a good look when all they wanted to do at that point was portray confidence and make the public believe there was absolutely nothing to worry about,” a Trump administration official reportedly told CNN. As of late Friday night, mask-wearing is still optional in the White House.

“What we’ve seen throughout the pandemic—and certainly over the last few months—is a willingness of the president and his team to expose his supporters to peril,” Reiner said. While the White House has tried to insulate the president as much as possible from his rally attendees with a parameter of physical barriers at most campaign events, few precautionary measures have been instituted to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among his supporters.

We saw this at Trump’s rally in Tulsa on June 20, which was reportedly attended by about 6,200 people, according to the Tulsa Fire Department. “The president was disappointed by the turnout but there were still thousands of people in that arena,” Reiner said. The event was notably attended by former Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain, who died from COVID-19 complications just 10 days later.“We can’t bring thousands of people together, shoulder to shoulder, without transmitting the virus.” 

We saw a similar conglomeration of the president’s supporters at Trump’s RNC acceptance speech at the White House, which was reportedly attended by roughly 1,500 people, many of whom were not wearing masks. Just this Thursday, the president reportedly came into close contact with supporters at a fundraiser in Bedminster, New Jersey.

The president’s physician, Dr. Sean Conley, said on Friday that he “[expects] the president to carry out his duties without interruption,” although continuity-of-government protocol remains on the backburner in the event that his condition worsens over the next few days. The 25th Amendment provides a pathway for Vice President Mike Pence to assume the duties of the president should Trump no longer be medically fit to serve. “I expect that the president probably will recover, because most people do—even people in his age group and even people with his comorbidities—but he doesn’t have an insignificant risk of something bad happening,” Reiner said.

In the event that the president does not relinquish his duties to Vice President Pence voluntarily, Section IV of the 25th Amendment allows a majority of the Cabinet secretaries to relieve the president of his duties should his condition worsen. “The Cabinet doesn’t have the medical capacity by themselves to make the determination, so they would defer to the White House Medical Unit,” Reiner said, which is staffed by career Army officers. “It would take a very mature, confident officer to say to the President, ‘Sir I don’t think you’re fit for duty right now, I think you should consider the 25th Amendment.’ Imagine that conversation with this particular patient.” 

Mask-wearing remains the most effective means of preventing the spread of the coronavirus. “Herd immunity really is an elusive goal that we wouldn’t really come close to until most people think 60 to 70 percent of the population has been infected with the virus,” Reiner said, which would probably correlate with 1 to 2 million Americans deaths under modest estimates. Reiner said that this crisis provides the opportunity “to stop this red-blue split” when it comes to mask-wearing. 

“If you wear a mask and you socially distance, you will not get this virus.”

Photograph by Win McNamee/Getty Images.

Audrey is a former reporter for The Dispatch.