In the days before President Trump and first lady Melania Trump announced they had tested positive for COVID-19, multiple members of his inner circle, family and top donors attended a series of events in Washington, D.C. Those gatherings featured minimal social distancing measures and included multiple people who were exposed to the Trumps and Hope Hicks, a top White House staffer who also tested positive Wednesday for COVID-19.
On Tuesday, Trump, Hicks and other White House staffers flew to the presidential debate in Cleveland. The group included the president’s sons Don Jr. and Eric. When they arrived at the debate, Trump’s group reportedly didn’t wear masks as required by the event’s co-host, the Cleveland Clinic.
The day of the debate was a busy one for Trump’s team in Washington as well. Photos posted on social media show that the Trump Victory Finance Committee, a joint fundraising effort run by the Republican National Committee and Trump’s campaign, held a series of events at Trump’s Washington hotel on Tuesday. His sons mingled with attendees at the hotel before they boarded the president’s plane on the way to the debate.
These events show just how many people in Trump’s orbit and the highest levels of government may have been exposed to people who are now confirmed cases. Trump, Hicks and other members of the president’s staff traveled to multiple events together onboard Air Force One this week in addition to the trip to the debate. In the hours since the revelations about Hicks, Trump and the first lady, another West Wing staffer and three members of the White House press corps tested positive.
On Tuesday, the day of the debate, a woman posted a picture showing her and Eric Trump standing close together in the hotel lobby. He appeared to be dressed in the same clothing he wore to the debate.
Eric Trump told Yahoo News he was tested on Tuesday morning before flying with the president and stopping by the event at the hotel. “I’m negative,” he said.
He did not say whether he has had a more recent test, and he did not immediately respond to follow-up questions.
Dr. Kavita Patel, a primary care physician who worked on health policy in the Obama administration, said too many people are falsely interpreting negative test results as “being like a golden ticket.”
Patel noted that infections can commonly appear five days after a confirmed exposure and that most health experts believe they can take up to 14 days to develop. For this reason, Patel, who is a Yahoo News medical contributor, said she believes you can only truly assess risk with multiple tests over a two-week period.
“Even if you’re tested negative on day five, you can breathe a sigh of relief,” Patel said. “I would want to wait for at least 14 days to feel a true sense of relief.”
In-person events with minimal or no social distancing have been a hallmark of the Trump campaign during the pandemic. The president has held multiple large rallies around the country in recent months, including some that were apparent violations of social distancing regulations designed to minimize spread of the coronavirus.
Ginger Howard, a Georgia Republican and member of the campaign’s Women for Trump advisory board, posted a series of photos on Tuesday showing the various festivities at the Trump hotel in Washington that day. In one shot, Howard and another woman leaned in for a photo with Don Jr. in the lobby of the hotel. Howard, who did not respond to a request for comment, indicated that it was part of the campaign’s “Trump Victory Call Day,” which was held at the hotel ahead of the debate.
Howard, who did not respond to a request for comment, also posted pictures showing she participated in a crowded campaign event as part of a “Women for Trump” bus tour in Georgia two days before the debate. At the hotel on Tuesday evening, a screen tracked donations raised during the fundraiser, and named several of the groups present that raised the most money making calls as part of the drive. One of the groups was identified as “Pence.”
A spokesperson for Vice President Mike Pence did not immediately respond to requests asking if he or any members of his family attended the hotel fundraiser.
The Trump hotel has been a favored destination for the president’s supporters, members of his staff and foreign governments seeking to make a splash in Washington. Howard and other attendees also posted pictures indicating there was a debate watch party at the hotel on Tuesday night at which at least 20 guests sat close together on chairs and watched Trump face off against Joe Biden on a big screen.
Those sorts of indoor events are regarded as particularly dangerous for viral contagion, according to Patel, the physician.
“It’s just high-risk,” she said, “and it’s not worth those risks.”
Trump’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment about those events. Bill Stepien, the president’s campaign manager, issued a statement on Friday saying the president’s in-person events would be canceled for an indefinite period.
“All previously announced campaign events involving the President’s participation are in the process of being moved to virtual events or are being temporarily postponed,” Stepien said.
But he indicated that campaign events that aren’t set to feature Trump “will be considered on a case-by-case basis.” He also said, “Vice President Mike Pence, who has tested negative for COVID-19, plans on resuming his scheduled campaign events.”
Another attendee at the campaign’s hotel fundraiser was Veronica Birkenstock, a Texas Republican who ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2018. Birkenstock made a series of Facebook posts between Sept. 28 and Sept. 30 describing the events at the hotel and indicating she also went to a debate watch party at the home of Matt and Mercedes Schlapp, two veteran conservative activists.
“Woo Hoo — Our team was very successful and we had so much fun raising funds for Trump Victory, attending the debate parties at the Trump Hotel and with [Conservative Political Action Conference] Warriors at Matt and Mercy’s Home,” Birkenstock wrote.
Mercedes Schlapp previously served as Trump’s White House communications director. She is currently a senior adviser to the Trump campaign. Both Matt and Mercedes Schlapp have also headlined Trump campaign events. Neither the Schlapps nor Birkenstock responded to requests for comment.
Howard also posted pictures from the Schlapps’ fete, including one in which she stood alongside Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
“Fun party with fun people to watch @realdonaldtrump debate!!” she wrote.
A spokesperson for Cruz did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
On Friday, Cruz’s famously close friend Sen. Mike Lee, a Utah Republican, also announced he had tested positive. Lee visited the White House on Sept. 26.
According to a Senate Judiciary Committee aide, Cruz was also in close contact with Lee on Thursday, two days after the Schlapps’ party. The aide said the pair were sitting next to each other unmasked and whispering during a committee hearing.
Lee also attended what was perhaps the riskiest event in the past week, one that was hosted by the White House. On Sept. 26, President Trump announced his Supreme Court nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, before a packed crowd in the Rose Garden. That crowd included Lee, Vice President Mike Pence and Mercedes Schlapp.
Lee was seen on television hugging and greeting many people in the crowd. On Friday, he and four other people who attended the Rose Garden event revealed that they had tested positive for COVID-19.
The escalating number of positive cases coming from these interconnected events is already having major political implications, including Trump’s canceled campaign appearances. There are also now questions about Biden’s exposure at the debate, and the chance that Barrett’s confirmation could be delayed.
Trump and Senate Republicans have been pushing to have Barrett named to the Supreme Court bench prior to the election. Lee is a critical member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which was due to begin Barrett’s confirmation hearings in 10 days.
As he announced his diagnosis, Lee indicated he plans to “remain isolated for the next 10 days,” which would have him able to return to work just in time for the hearings to proceed on schedule. However, the committee aide said there is “a big question mark” on whether the confirmation hearings will proceed as scheduled, given that Lee, Cruz and others were potentially exposed at recent events.
“There is serious concern among staff and members on both sides of the aisle about the safety of senators and staffers on Capitol Hill,” the aide said.
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