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Donald Trump’s presidency has been full of plot surprises. But no single tweet has had the same meteor-like impact as the one sent by the president shortly before 1am on Friday morning. It felt like a season finale moment. “Overnight, @FlOTUS and I tested positive for COVID-19,” Trump wrote. He added, in matter-of-fact style: “We will begin our quarantine and recovery process immediately. We will get through this TOGETHER!”.
The announcement was astonishing. And yet – seen through the timeline of Trump’s recent activities – it appears wholly unremarkable and perhaps even cosmically inevitable. Over the past five days the president has behaved with the same reckless disregard for public health rules that has characterised his response since January to the global coronavirus pandemic.
Viewed with hindsight, his meetings during the last week look ill-judged, to say the least. On Monday, Trump appeared in the White House’s Rose Garden. He announced new measures to distribute Covid-19 test kits to US states – to defeat what he referred to as the “China virus”. The president was upbeat. He confidently predicted the pandemic would soon be over. “We’re rounding the corner,” he declared.
His audience was made up of members of Congress and state officials. Few wore masks. Neither did Trump or the vice-president Mike Pence, who followed the president to the podium. Other administration officials who were present included the health secretary, Alex M Azar, and the education secretary, Betsy DeVos. Earlier, Trump inspected a truck on the south lawn and met manufacturers from Ohio.
On Tuesday, Trump was preparing for his first televised debate with Joe Biden, his Democratic challenger. These practice sessions took place in the West Wing of the White House. As the Washington press corps has frequently noted, masks are rarely seen inside the White House building. It was almost as if this area of executive power had been deemed off limits to the virus – a fantasy that would soon prove to be spectacularly wrong.
Later on Tuesday, Trump boarded Air Force One en route to the debate in Ohio. With him was a large entourage. It included members of the Trump family: his wife Melania, adult children and senior staff. Also there was his trusted aide, 31-year-old Hope Hicks. Since joining his campaign in early 2015, Hicks was often at Trump’s side. She returned to his administration in spring, following an earlier spell as press secretary.
None of the entourage were seen wearing masks while getting off the plane. Hicks was spotted climbing into a staff van together with Bill Stepien, the president’s campaign manager, the New York Times reported. Those onboard included the campaign strategist Jason Miller, the White House chief of staff, Mark Meadows, and policy adviser Stephen Miller.
Inside the debate hall, the two candidates were placed some distance apart. It was a rancorous and horrible night, memorable for Trump talking over his rival. One moment now stands out. Onstage in Cleveland, Trump mocked Biden for his habit of wearing a mask in public. “I think masks are OK,” Trump said. He pointed out that both candidates had been tested for the virus, just before their TV clash, adding: “I put a mask on when I think I need it.”
And then Trump went on the attack. Speaking to Biden directly, Trump suggested his rival’s precautions were over the top. And ridiculous: “I don’t wear a mask like him. Every time you see him, he’s got a mask. He could be speaking 200ft away from them and he shows up with the biggest mask I’ve ever seen.” To emphasis his point, Trump spread his arms. Biden was in close proximity to Trump for 90 minutes.
Trump’s family watched from the audience. None wore masks. This show of support for the president was – it seemed – transgressive. And in clear breach of host rules, which called for blue surgical masks to be worn. A Cleveland clinic doctor in a white lab coat had even tried to approach Trump family guests, offering a mask. She was unsuccessful. Someone shook their head at her as she came close, according to a press pool report.
On the flight back to Washington DC, Jared Kushner chatted with colleagues, again maskless; on the tarmac Trump’s daughter-in-law Lara Trump shared an umbrella with Kimberly Guilfoyle, Donald Trump Jr’s girlfriend.
But it was Wednesday that turned out to be the most consequential moment of the 2020 US election. Trump carried on with his campaign activities. There was a fundraiser at the home of a private donor in Minneapolis – and then a rally in Duluth. Everything was as normal: warm-up music for the closely packed crowds waiting for the president, followed by the theatrical arrival of Air Force One.
Trump emerged, looking solemn. He waved at his supporters. Arriving on stage, he threw a couple of “Maga” baseball caps into the audience behind him. And then he embarked on his usual stump speech: how he had “won big” in his debate with “Sleepy Joe”, and how he would put America first during his second White House term. Curious observers might have noticed that he wrapped up early, leaving after just 45 minutes.
Behind the scenes, something was wrong. Hicks had accompanied Trump on his trip to Minneapolis. By this point she was feeling unwell. Her symptoms were ominous: likely a cough, or headache, or both. On the journey home, Hicks was isolated in a separate part of the cabin. When it landed she exited from the back of the plane.
Up until Wednesday, the president’s behaviour might be defended. After all, Hicks had cut herself off from other White House staff as soon as she fell sick. Over the next 24 hours, however, Trump continued as if nothing had happened. It was a remarkable act of hubris that may have caused the virus to spread. Key members of his administration also failed to isolate.
On Thursday, Hicks tested positive. The news went through the White House like a bomb-blast, shattering the complacency that had once prevailed. Amid dismay, and one imagines fear, White House staff began wearing masks. News of Hicks’s diagnosis was not made public. The hope among senior staff was this might be kept secret. The mood was one of growing panic, according to reports.
Meanwhile, some of Trump’s closest aides said they had sensed on Wednesday that Trump was feeling poorly. They put this down to tiredness caused by an intense campaign schedule. The president had seemed exhausted, one person familiar with the situation told Bloomberg.
Apparently unconcerned, Trump flew to his Bedminister golf resort in New Jersey for a private fundraising event. Several aides who had been in close proximity to Hicks were due to go with him. They cancelled. At the golf club, Trump made a speech and mingled with supporters at a roundtable. As usual, he was not wearing a mask. The White House press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, who had been with Hicks on Wednesday, did not use a face covering when briefing reporters.
Trump was tested for Covid-19 later on Thursday, after returning to the White House. For a little while longer it was business as usual. The president gave a telephone interview to Fox News’s Sean Hannity. Speaking from his residence, he sounded a little raspy. Trump explained that he and the first lady were both being tested for coronavirus. The result – delivered via Twitter early on Friday – came when much of America was asleep.
Over the past nine months Trump has sought to diminish the significance of the virus, which has killed more than 200,000 Americans, and more than 1 million people worldwide. He has mostly spurned social distancing. For a long time he downplayed the importance of wearing masks. As caseloads have risen, Trump has pushed for states to reopen their economies. The president even blithely predicted the “virus” would disappear, as if by magic.
It didn’t. And now Trump has become its most famous victim.
Source: The Guardian
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