WASHINGTON — Two White House aides may have tested positive for the coronavirus in the past two days, but President Donald Trump still held public events Friday with limited social distancing and without requiring participants to wear masks.
Two dozen House Republicans gathered with Trump and other administration officials in the State Dining Room at the White House on Friday afternoon to discuss the country’s economic recovery from the pandemic. None of the attendees wore a mask.
“I do want to advise our media friends before they write stories about how we didn’t wear masks and we didn’t possibly socially distance adequately, that you saw to it that we had tests, and that nobody in here had the coronavirus unless it’s somebody in the media,” said Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, during the meeting.
“So the only reason we would wear masks is if we were trying to protect ourselves from you in the media. And we’re not scared of you. So that’s why we can be here like this,” Gohmert continued.
Although attendees appeared to be sitting a few feet apart from one another around the State Dining Room, not all stayed at the recommended 6-foot distance.
Towards the end of the meeting, Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Ariz., leaned over Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., to borrow his microphone.
“Oops,” Lesko said, as the microphone stand stuck to the tablecloth in front of Johnson, leaving her within what appeared to be just a few inches of her colleague.
Chief of staff Mark Meadows defended the White House’s decision not to require meeting attendees to wear face coverings, telling reporters that “the protocols put in place put a stronger emphasis on making sure that we do the mitigation that we need to do.”
Meadows said that all attendees had been tested for the virus.
“The masks that you wear is generally to keep other people from being infected,” Meadows added.
But in the same meeting, Trump cast doubt on the reliability of testing, saying that “the whole concept of tests aren’t necessarily great.”
“The tests are perfect but something can happen between a test where it’s good and something happens,” Trump added.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends wearing a face covering to help slow the spread of the virus, but many Republicans including Trump have been reluctant to do so.
Trump has told advisers that he believes wearing a mask would “send the wrong message” and has privately worried that it would make him look ridiculous and that such an image could be used in negative ads.
Neither Trump nor first lady Melania Trump wore face coverings to a wreath-laying ceremony at the World War II Memorial in Washington on Friday morning. Multiple World War II veterans also attended, all of whom are older and particularly vulnerable if infected.
When asked if Trump considered wearing a mask around the veterans to protect them, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said “they made the choice to come here” to be with the commander-in-chief on this “momentous day.”
Trump has defended his decision to avoid wearing a face covering during much of his visit Tuesday to a mask production facility in Phoenix.
In April, Vice President Mike Pence was also criticized for not wearing a mask while on a tour of the Mayo Clinic’s coronavirus testing labs, despite the Minnesota hospital’s rules that all occupants were to wear masks.
The White House confirmed Friday that an aide to Pence had tested positive for the coronavirus, the second administration staffer this week known to have been infected.
On Thursday Trump’s personal valet, who worked in the West Wing serving the president his meals, among other duties, tested positive.
After learning that one of his valets was infected, Trump reportedly became “lava level mad” at his staff and said he did not feel it was doing all it could to protect him, according to a person close to the White House.
Meadows said Friday that “some of those that serve [Trump] will wear a mask in those closer proximities.”
Both Trump and Pence have tested negative since learning that the staffers were infected, the White House said.
In the wake of the latest positive test, new measures have been adopted, according to a White House official.
They include a deep and more frequent cleaning of the West Wing and requiring staff who serve Trump and are close to him throughout the day — such as White House residence staff, his military valets and members of his Secret Service detail — to wear face coverings, the official said.
Any nonessential White House staff who came in contact with either of the two aides who tested positive for coronavirus will self-quarantine for 14 days, the official said, while essential staff will continue to work in the West Wing but be closely monitored.
Some White House provisions were already in place before the two aides tested positive this week, and they will continue, the official said. Those include daily coronavirus testing for any staffer who is in immediate contact with the president on a regular basis — roughly a dozen people — and temperature checks for anyone who enters the outer Oval Office every time, which for some staffers can be about 10 times a day.
But before this week, White House aides often sat shoulder-to-shoulder in the briefing room, sometimes for more than an hour. Staffers were also seen huddling close together, without wearing masks, in meetings and at the president’s events, including on Sunday at his Fox News town hall at the Lincoln Memorial.
Top advisers mostly have not been seen using face coverings in front of the press or the president, though a handful of aides have worn them behind the scenes. The president noted on Friday that his staff photographer was wearing a mask, and she has in the past during coronavirus task force briefings.
Many members of the White House press corps wear face masks while on the White House grounds, but only on Friday did all of those who attended the daily briefing do so.