Updated: 3:49 p.m., May 11.
The coronavirus has reached the top echelons of U.S. government, undercutting President Donald Trump’s message that the virus is abating and raising concerns about a government hollowed out by quarantined officials.
Two of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have been affected, including chief of naval operations Adm. Michael Gilday and National Guard head Gen. Joseph Lengyel. Gilday was exposed to a family member with COVID-19 and has since tested negative but will be self-isolating for a week, according to a Pentagon statement. Lengyel tested positive on May 9, but a second and third test returned negative.
In the White House, one of the president’s military valets tested positive, as has Vice President Mike Pence’s press secretary, Katie Miller. Miller worked closely with the vice president and routinely attended larger briefings in the Situation Roomt. (Her husband, Trump senior policy advisor Stephen Miller, has tested negative but is working from home this week.)
Pence will not be quarantining, according to a spokesman. “Additionally, Vice President Pence has tested negative every single day and plans to be at the White House [Monday],” Devin O’Malley said.
A memo to White House staff on Monday directed “everyone who enters the West Wing to wear a mask or facial covering,” AP reported. “Staff will be allowed to remove their face coverings if they sit at least six feet apart from their colleagues. Trump himself is still not expected to wear a mask.”
But the sudden spate of COVID cases at top levels in the Pentagon and the White House have undercut Trump’s sunny predictions.
“Coronavirus numbers are looking MUCH better, going down almost everywhere. Big progress being made!” Trump tweeted inaccurately on Monday morning. (Coronavirus numbers are falling in hard-hit New York City, but rising elsewhere across the country. Here’s a state-by-state look at the trends.)
Other officials see the risk as obvious.
“It is scary to go to work,” White House economic adviser Kevin Hassett told CBS’s Face The Nation. “I think that I’d be a lot safer if I was sitting at home than I would be going to the West Wing.”
“It’s a small, crowded place. It’s, you know, it’s a little bit risky. But you have to do it because you have to serve your country,” Hassett continued.
The high-profile appearance of coronavirus in both the Pentagon and the White House has also brought scrutiny on how strictly senior officials are wearing masks and abiding by social distancing rules. In an official White House photograph from a Saturday meeting with Trump, Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley are among the maskless attendees sitting elbow-to-elbow in the Cabinet Room. On Friday, Esper joined a gathering of World War II veterans in Washington to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Allied victory in Europe; photos show him barefaced, handing out challenge coins to maskless veterans. At one point, a veteran gripped the secretary’s elbow, according to the Washington Post. Older people are at particular risk for serious illness as a result of the coronavirus.
Yet at other times, Esper preaches the importance of covering up. “In a room, we’re wearing masks. We flew out here today: Everybody on my team was wearing — and myself — we were wearing face coverings,” he said during a visit to U.S. Northern Command headquarters last week.
Masks have become a flashpoint in the increasingly polarized political environment surrounding the pandemic. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends face coverings, but Trump has said, “I don’t think I’m going to be doing it” and has repeatedly appeared in group gatherings without a mask. Pence also ignited controversy when he didn’t wear a mask during a visit to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota on April 28. (He later said that he should have done so.)
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., meanwhile, has said that Trump should wear a mask in public, as she does, in part to set an example.
The White House has ramped up its efforts to test staff and officials, and to trace their contacts, since the discovery of its two positive cases, but the New York Times reported that there are no plans to keep Trump and Pence separated to avoid a situation in which both could be incapacitated by COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
But other senior members of the White House coronavirus task force have been temporarily sidelined by the outbreak. Four administration officials who were to testify before the Senate in person on Tuesday will now appear via video conference, the Senate health committee announced Sunday. One is Tony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the de facto face of the Trump administration’s public health response to the crisis.
CDC Director Robert Redfield and Stephen Hahn, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, “have self-quarantined out of an abundance of caution after being exposed to COVID-19,” according to the office of committee chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.
Alexander will also videoconference in because one of his staff members tested positive for the virus; the 79-year-old senator is now self-quarantining at home for 14 days. (Alexander tested negative and has no symptoms, according to his office.)