President Donald Trump may be eagerly seeking a return to normal after three nights in the hospital. But the White House he arrived home to Monday with dramatic and reckless flourish has changed drastically since he was airlifted off the South Lawn at the end of last week.
Instead of a bustling hive of pre-election activity, the West Wing has become a breeding ground for viral contagion. At least 11 of the President’s aides or allies have either contracted the virus or – in the case of his daughter Ivanka – are working from home. Entire suites of offices sit vacant as Trump’s aides work to isolate him in the residence and out of the West Wing.
A new aura of mistrust was settling in as several aides raised questions about whether they had been recklessly put in harm’s way over the past week. Accusations of mismanagement – directed mainly at White House chief of staff Mark Meadows – have flown amid one of the gravest presidential crises in a generation. An absence of robust contact tracing efforts caused ripples of concern as testing and mask-wearing norms were being second-guessed.
None of that anxiety was allayed when Trump arrived back to the White House Monday. His first act after striding up the South Portico steps was to rip off his mask and stuff it into his pocket – even though he remains infected with coronavirus and could potentially infect those nearby. He was then seen going back out onto the balcony and re-entering so a camera crew could shoot his entrance.
“We’re going back. We’re going back to work. We’re gonna be out front,” Trump said in a video-taped message upon his return. “As your leader I had to do that. I knew there’s danger to it, but I had to do it.”
Though four hours earlier his doctors conceded he was not yet “out of the woods” in his fight against Covid-19, Trump framed the disease as in the past: “Now I’m better and maybe I’m immune? I don’t know. But don’t let it dominate your lives.”
In the White House residence where he was speaking without a mask, an already slimmed-down staff has been reduced even further after the President and first lady both came down with coronavirus. At least one staffer – who is military personnel directly assigned to support the President in the Oval Office and residence – tested positive over the weekend, according to a person familiar with the matter.
As Trump returned home, a supply of medical gowns, goggles and respirator masks had been secured for use by his health and security teams – and potentially residence staffers – should they need to come into close proximity to the President.
In the hours after he arrived, a White House employee was seen sanitizing the press briefing room wearing a full white suit with a hood, gloves and protective eyewear.
And a temporary suite of offices had been arranged on the ground floor of the executive mansion, adjacent to the White House medical suite, according to a person familiar with the plans. Trump’s working space was adjusted both in the interest of constantly monitoring the still-convalescing President and in the hopes of keeping him out of the West Wing, where staffers are contending with a growing coronavirus outbreak.
Readiness to move on
Trump hoped his return to the White House might signal his readiness to move on from what appeared, at least in his doctors’ descriptions, to be a serious case of a disease that has killed more than 200,000 Americans.
“Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life,” Trump tweeted earlier Monday, even though his doctors had described worrying symptoms and he was treated with a combination of experimental therapies unavailable to nearly anyone else.
The situation inside the building was only growing more fraught in the hours before and after he returned. An active coronavirus patient himself, Trump is still in “uncharted territory,” according to his doctor, after receiving an onslaught of experimental treatments and therapies. A large corps of both political and residence staffers – already on edge after numerous potential spreader events – now must contend with a contagious commander in chief who is eager to demonstrate his ability to lead.
For now, Trump won’t be returning to the West Wing – or at least that is the plan.
While Trump has office space in his personal residence on the third floor of the White House, the temporary offices in the Map Room and the Diplomatic Reception Room will provide closer access to his physicians and medical equipment.
The Map Room, where Trump prepared for last week’s debate and where he has rehearsed his State of the Union speeches, is directly next door to the medical suite, which includes a reception area, an exam room, and Dr. Sean Conley’s office. The diplomatic reception room is just down the hall.
The medical offices have been likened to a small “urgent care,” and in normal times are used by staffers for first aid or to retrieve over-the-counter medication. But the facilities can also be used in an emergency to perform some types of surgery or administer urgent aid. On Tuesday evening, the President will receive a fifth and final intravenous dose of the antiviral remdesivir in the White House.
Guidelines from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say people infected with coronavirus should isolate from others for at least 10 days after their symptoms appear, though Trump has blatantly disregarded recommendations from the CDC over the course of the pandemic.
Few believe Trump could be prevented from staging more photo-ops like he did on Sunday, when he emerged from the confines of Walter Reed in a black SUV to greet supporters standing on the roadside nearby. Afterward, Secret Service agents told CNN the episode demonstrated a disregard by the President for their health and safety.
He continued the practice on Monday when he arrived back to the White House. After saluting the helicopter and walking indoors without a mask, Trump could be seen returning outside with several people and a camera crew to apparently re-shoot his entrance into the house.
When he returns to work on Tuesday – which his allies have loudly proclaimed he is eager to do –Trump won’t have as many familiar faces around him. His daughter and senior adviser Ivanka Trump is working from home this week, according to an aide, “out of an abundance of caution.”
On Monday, the White House declined to say how many staffers were isolating because of their exposure to press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, senior adviser Hope Hicks or the President himself. Trump’s personal assistant Nick Luna and two press aides have also tested positive. All are remaining at home.
The rapid spread of the disease among Trump’s aides has prompted an intense backlash among staffers, who have complained they are being kept in the dark about how White House leadership planned to deal with the outbreak.
The bungled response to the coronavirus outbreak in the West Wing has been led by Meadows, who did not email his staff over the weekend to inform them of protocols despite the President’s hospitalization.
Instead, staff received no new guidance about workplace practices until Sunday night. Multiple White House officials expressed private frustration that Meadows spent the weekend acting more like the President’s friend than the chief of staff.
On Monday, the White House defended its practices despite the growing number of aides who have tested positive.
“We’ve been in the pandemic for many months,” deputy press secretary Brian Morgenstern told reporters at the White House. “We know what to do when someone gets sick: we reassess has anybody been in close contact, do they need to get another test? Do they need to work remotely? That’s what we’re seeing.”
Still, aides often follow the example set by their superiors when it comes to wearing masks, working remotely or social distancing at the office. Several officials told CNN they don’t wear masks in meetings unless their bosses do, a pattern that has reached several other agencies in addition to the West Wing.
Until he was diagnosed with Covid, Trump was seen infrequently in a mask, and mocked others for wearing them. He instructed reporters to remove them during news conferences, and has bristled in meetings when attendees try to speak through a face covering.
Now, any staff that meets with Trump in person will have to wear full personal protective gear. How else the White House was planning to ensure staffers’ safety when Trump returned wasn’t clear.
“We’ve worked with our infectious disease experts to make some recommendations for how to keep everything safe down at the White House for the President and those around him,” Conley, the White House physician, told reporters at Walter Reed on Monday. “We’re looking at where he’s going to be able to carry out his duties, office space. I’ll just say that it’s in line with everything we’ve been doing upstairs for the last several days.”
Pressed how his team would keep Trump “safely quarantined,” Conley refused to elaborate.
“I wish I could go into that more, but I just can’t,” he said.
Lack of clarity
The lack of clarity did not help improve the impression that Trump wasn’t taking seriously his status as a carrier of a highly contagious and potentially deadly virus. He was sharply criticized for staging the photo-op outside Walter Reed, which several Secret Service agents privately said put their colleagues at unnecessary risk.
The internal questions and the fierce criticism surrounding Trump’s drive around Walter Reed are being aimed at Tony Ornato, the deputy chief of staff for operations at the White House, who signed off on the decision at the request of the President, a person familiar with the matter tells CNN.
“He would never tell the President no,” a person familiar with the matter said. “That’s why the President loves him.”
The deputy chief of staff for operations (or “DCOS” as it’s known inside the White House) is a remarkably powerful role in the West Wing. It oversees everything from the medical unit to scheduling and advance matters to the White House military office. Every public movement by the President, and many behind-the-scenes details, are at the discretion of this role.
Ornato is a longtime Secret Service official, who was assigned to deputy chief of staff position last December. He is technically still a USSS employee, but is on temporarily assignment to the West Wing. It was seen as a highly unusual elevation at the time.
The President’s new detail leader “feels neutered in his role,” a person familiar with the matter said, because Ornato oversees everything. Inside, Ornato has been seen by some over the last several months as not taking coronavirus seriously, because he is now effectively in a political role and is close to the President.
CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated to reflect the staffer who tested positive is military personnel directly assigned to support the President in the Oval Office and residence.
CNN’s Peter Morris contributed to this report.