When President Donald Trump stepped into the dining room of his golf club in New Jersey on Thursday, high-dollar attendees gathered for a fundraiser there thought he seemed a little off.
Subdued from a week of campaigning, maybe. Hoarse from a string of large rallies. Perhaps a little pale underneath the crystal chandeliers.
“Exhausted,” described one person who saw him.
Little could those guests know that the tired-sounding man sitting across the white brocade tablecloth would test positive, hours later, for coronavirus.
Nor were they aware that before he arrived, both Trump and his senior aides received information suggesting he could have been exposed — and therefore could be contagious. Like usual, the President wasn’t wearing a mask.
Trump’s positive diagnosis, announced in a tweet during the small hours on Friday morning only after word leaked his top aide Hope Hicks had become infected, has thrown the nation’s leadership into tumult and sent the capital scrambling to determine who else might be infected.
Questions of government continuity arose in ways they haven’t in years; Trump’s diagnosis amounted to the most serious health threat to an American president since the non-fatal shooting of President Ronald Reagan in 1981.
Suffering only “mild” symptoms, according to the White House — which include a fever, a person familiar with the matter said — Trump alternated Friday between upbeat entreaties to aides to go about business as usual and more worried-sounding brooding about his health, according to a person familiar with the matter. He canceled all of his upcoming campaign travel and failed to appear for a scheduled phone call midday with state and local officials to discuss the impact of the pandemic on vulnerable senior citizens.
“I know many of you were expecting to hear from President Trump today, but as I’m sure you are all aware, President Trump and the first lady tested positive for Covid-19,” Vice President Mike Pence, acting in his stead, told the officials.
In a memo Friday afternoon, Trump’s physician wrote that he “remains fatigued but in good spirits.” He said Trump had been administered a Regeneron polyclonal antibody cocktail and has been taking zinc, vitamin D, famotidine, melatonin and a daily aspirin. The decision to give Trump an experimental monoclonal antibody cocktail is a sign of how concerned the White House may be by the diagnosis, Dr. Jonathan Reiner, a CNN medical analyst and professor at George Washington University, said.
The story of how Trump contracted coronavirus was still being learned on Friday as aides hurriedly tried to trace who he’d been in contact with and whether they themselves might be contagious. At 74-years-old, clinically obese and with known heart ailments, Trump himself fits within a high-risk category.
Yet taken in the broader scope, the origins of Trump’s diagnosis seemed clear. Long derisive of the very mitigation measures recommended by his own administration, Trump himself has mused privately that catching coronavirus is something he was willing to risk if it meant going about his normal routine, people familiar with the conversations said.
His positive test was a sharp reminder of the still-devastating pandemic that continues to grip the country, even though Trump insists the end is near. For a President and White House apparently intent on disregarding the scientific advice of the administration’s own health advisers, it was a sudden glimpse of a reality the rest of the nation has been experiencing for months, even if that reality has been denied at the highest levels of government.
Trump had long viewed the prospect of contracting the virus as “Russian Roulette,” a phrase he used with friends and advisers to describe the chances he might become infected in the course of his job, according to people familiar with the conversations.
Filling packed rallies and convening events at the White House, Trump seemed to regard the extensive testing regimen his medical advisers put in place as protection enough against a virus that has killed more than 200,000 Americans and more than 1 million people worldwide.
Multiple guests at one of the most recent events — his Rose Garden announcement of a new Supreme Court nominee last Saturday — said Friday they, too, had tested positive for coronavirus, leading some White House officials to narrow their focus on that episode as a potential place where the outbreak began. Reports of positive tests also began emerging among other White House officials and members of the White House press corps.
Even as the President has voiced somewhat fatalistic views of getting sick, he has at moments appeared genuinely disconcerted at the notion.
When a military valet who handles his food and drink fell ill in the spring, Trump seemed spooked, according to people familiar with his reaction. He demanded to know how it was possible with such closed access that this person could get sick.
Earlier in the spring, Trump appeared rattled when his longtime friend, the real estate developer Stanley Chera, fell seriously ill due to complications from coronavirus. Trump raised his friend’s case in public multiple times, and aides said he seemed shaken by it. Chera eventually succumbed to the disease.
Chera’s son attended Trump’s fundraiser in Bedminster on Thursday, unaware like the other guests that the President was carrying the virus.
Few masks at Supreme Court nomination
Masks were hard to come by last Saturday, when Trump revealed his selection to replace Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court — hardly a surprise for a White House that repeatedly disregards the mitigation practices recommended to Americans, most of whom follow them.
A who’s-who of conservative Washington convened to watch Trump nominate Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the seat: Republican lawmakers, religious leaders and members of Trump’s cabinet all streamed into the flag-bedecked Rose Garden for the moment, viewed as a turning point for Trump’s campaign.
A week later, the event has come to symbolize an attitude of nonchalance to the pandemic that Trump’s advisers once hoped the Supreme Court vacancy might help obscure.
A long line of Republican senators was photographed without masks. One, Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee, was seen on camera chatting at close range with other guest, his mask in his hand.
On Friday, Lee announced he had tested positive for coronavirus. Another guest, Notre Dame President Fr. John Jenkins, also said he had become infected.
It wasn’t clear whether their cases were tied, or if the Rose Garden event acted as a nexus for contagion. But in the ensuing days, the relaxed attitude continued to pervade among Trump and his aides.
In debate preparation sessions convened in the White House Map Room, Trump spoke at close range with a team of advisers, including former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, former presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway, campaign manager Bill Stepien and Hicks, whose eventual diagnosis on Thursday set into motion the revelation Trump himself was infected.
Hicks, along with a large coterie of Trump family members and campaign officials, flew mask-less with the President to and from the debate. When a staff member from the Cleveland Clinic tried to hand members of Trump’s family masks before the debate began, they were waved away. Midway through, Trump insulted rival Joe Biden for wearing one.
“I don’t wear a mask like him. Every time you see him, he’s got a mask. He could be speaking 200 feet away from them and he shows up with the biggest mask I’ve ever seen,” Trump said during the chaotic 90-minute face-off.
During multiple trips aboard Air Force One this week — and in the tighter quarters on Marine One, the presidential helicopter — aides demonstrated a relaxed attitude toward wearing masks.
Hicks, in fact, wore one more often than other senior officials, people familiar with the matter said, including within the close confines of the helicopter, which she flew in on Wednesday as the President campaigned in Minnesota.
But by the time Trump arrived in Duluth for a campaign rally on Wednesday, it was evident to some officials that something had shifted. In the course of the trip, Hicks began demonstrating symptoms of the virus. And the President beforehand told aides his speech would come in shorter than normal.
Trump spoke for 45 minutes, about half the length of his usual rallies. As Air Force One returned to Washington, Hicks isolated herself in a cabin aboard the plane, and was seen deplaning from the rear steps wearing a mask.
At the White House the next day, Trump did not arrive to the Oval Office until midday, and appeared unusually lethargic to some officials. Hicks, whose symptoms had worsened, underwent a test — just as Trump’s senior-most aides do on a near-daily basis. Just before Trump was scheduled to depart the White House for his fundraiser, Hicks’ test results came back positive.
“We discovered that right as the Marine One was taking off yesterday,” chief of staff Mark Meadows told reporters at the White House.
Some aides who had been scheduled to travel to New Jersey with the President — but who had been in close contact with Hicks — were removed from the trip, including press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, personal aide Nick Luna, social media adviser Dan Scavino and senior adviser Jared Kushner.
But Trump himself went ahead anyway, despite having been in close contact with Hicks nearly every day prior.
“White House operations made the assessment that it was safe for the President in consultation with others,” McEnany told reporters at the White House. “He socially distanced, it was an outdoor event and it was deemed safe.”
That, it turned out, is untrue.
Arriving at Bedminster hours after learning that Hicks had tested positive for coronavirus, neither Trump nor the two aides traveling with him — John McEntee and Judd Deere — wore masks.
The President met indoors with a group of 18 donors for a roundtable discussion. The participants were all at least 6 feet apart from the President, but none of the attendees were informed that one of the President’s closest advisers had just tested positive for coronavirus.
Trump, who looked “exhausted” in the words of one person who saw him, still stood for pictures with several donors who did not wear masks, although they were kept at a distance from Trump during the pictures.
After the roundtable, he delivered remarks outdoors to a group of about 250 donors — with the President about a dozen feet from the closest in the crowd.
Returning to the White House, Trump headed directly inside.
‘End of the pandemic is in sight’
At an annual dinner held virtually this year because of the pandemic, Trump offered an upbeat assessment of the outbreak in a prerecorded speech that aired around 8 p.m.
“I just want to say that the end of the pandemic is in sight, and next year will be one of the greatest years in the history of our country,” he said.
Yet by early evening on Thursday, word was spreading among senior officials of Hicks’ positive test. An effort to alert those who came into close contact with her began.
The White House did not plan to make her diagnosis public, but word eventually leaked — first to Bloomberg News and eventually to CNN and other outlets — that she had tested positive.
Trump himself, calling into Sean Hannity’s Fox News program, said it was possible she contracted it from military members or law enforcement, who he claimed often angle for photographs.
And he disclosed he was waiting on results of his own test.
In between, Trump consulted with the White House physician, Navy Commander Dr. Sean Conley, about his symptoms and potential places he could have been exposed, according to a person familiar with the conversations.
A few hours later, Trump tweeted he was still waiting for his results but that he would be quarantining with the first lady — a surprise to some White House aides, who had moments before released a schedule for Friday that included a fundraiser at his hotel in Washington and a rally in Florida.
At 12:54 a.m. ET, the President made the announcement on Twitter that he and the first lady had tested positive.
“We will get through this TOGETHER!” he declared.
On Friday evening, just before 5:30 p.m., Marine One landed at the White House to take Trump to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where the White House says he will be spending “the next few days.”
Trump walked out of the White House residence at 6:16 p.m. — his first public appearance since announcing his diagnosis — wearing a mask and a suit and boarded Marine One. He walked on his own, without assistance, and displayed no outward signs of illness.
Minutes later, he arrived at Walter Reed — roughly 17 hours after he first disclosed he had tested positive.
This story has been updated with additional developments Friday.