WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump attempted to claim victory over the coronavirus Monday as he returned to a White House increasingly hollowed out by the disease, as infections among staffers continued to spread and confusion reigned.
“I will be leaving the great Walter Reed Medical Center today at 6:30 P.M. Feeling really good!” he tweeted shortly before making a dramatic exit through the front doors of the hospital, pumping his fist to cameras. “Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life. We have developed, under the Trump Administration, some really great drugs & knowledge. I feel better than I did 20 years ago!”
Upon returning to the White House, Trump took off his mask before posing for a photo op as Marine One took off.
Back inside the West Wing, the mood was less triumphant. “Folks are dropping like flies over here,” a White House official said. “S— is very crazy.”
Normally a hive of activity, the White House press office was dark and deserted as of Monday morning, even before press secretary Kayleigh McEnany revealed she had tested positive for the virus. In one area, the lights hadn’t been turned on. In another section, where roughly half a dozen staffers usually sit tightly grouped together as top administration officials stream in and out, just one aide had come into work.
McEnany joined a string of aides and allies who have tested positive in recent days, as the White House has become an epicenter for a coronavirus outbreak stretching from low-level aides to senators and some of Trump’s closest advisers, like former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who is hospitalized.
Trump and his allies have looked to reframe the narrative around his diagnosis, pushing an image of the president as a “warrior” battling the virus, and arguing that his newly-acquired firsthand experience with the illness gives him an advantage over Democratic nominee Joe Biden.
At the same time, they tried to project a sense of normalcy, issuing images of Trump working from the hospital even as his doctors and top officials detailed drops in his oxygen level and an aggressive course of therapy.
Trump is now expected to remain in the residence where he will receive constant care and monitoring by White House medical staff, and not head to the West Wing until he gets cleared by doctors, said a person familiar with the plans.
Trump’s earlier tweet that he planned to leave the hospital, hours after the revelation that McEnany and two of her deputies had tested positive for the virus, had left West Wing staffers feeling almost entirely in the dark as the outbreak continued to spread, a White House official said.
While the press office was nearly deserted on Monday, on Friday a group of more than half a dozen officials, including White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, had gathered in McEnany’s office in cloth masks for about an hour.
Staffers are not being consistently informed through official channels or contact tracers about new confirmed cases among people with whom they work directly, instead learning about new cases “through word of mouth, or from you guys” — the media — said the official, who was unaware that two of McEnany’s deputies had tested positive until informed by a reporter.
Another official working at the White House on Monday was unclear if they counted as a close contact of McEnany’s, and said they were awaiting guidance on whether or not they should go home. A number of staffers decided on their own not to come in.
“Because we’ve had some cases in the West Wing, more people are working remotely today than in previous days, and that’s the way the process is supposed to work,” White House deputy communications director Brian Morgenstern told reporters Monday afternoon. “When a case is identified, if people are thinking they may be potentially exposed, you step up precautions.”
Top administration officials have remained “confused” over the lack of information they are getting, said a person familiar with the situation. They described Meadow’s contradiction of White House doctors over the weekend as “inexplicable.”
“Literally no one knows, but everyone was furious,” the person said.
The main instruction from officials has been that staffers should talk to their managers if they want to work from home, but that not all who prefer to work from home will be able to do so. Essential workers are still expected to show up in person — a category that includes some operational and senior staff in the West Wing as well as a large portion of the National Security Council staff, many of whom deal with classified information and need access to a secure facility to do their jobs.
Among the handful of staffers spotted around the West Wing Monday morning, none had on masks, with the exception of cleaning staff, and the Secret Service agents who still stood at their posts along hallways.
But there were a number of staffers seen in masks going in and out of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building adjacent to the White House — a significant change from the previous week, when a staffer who was there on Thursday said no one had been wearing a mask.
It wasn’t until Sunday, nearly three days after Trump announced he tested positive, that the first campus-wide communication went out to White House staff repeating the same advice the White House has been giving for months and to stay home if they aren’t feeling well.
It made no acknowledgement of the current developments and told staffers they “should not go to the White House Medical Unit clinic for any Covid-19 testing inquiries.”
White House communications director Alyssa Farah said in a tweet that staff have continued to work in the office despite the growing number of cases because senior White House officials are “deemed Essential Personnel by CDC & DHS. This means they are expected to continue to work – while taking precautions – until a medical recommendation otherwise is given.”
One former administration aide said the internal dynamic fueling staffer concerns had been inevitable. “This is the culture inside the White House. It’s a culture of paranoia, a culture of fear,” Olivia Troye, a former top aide to Vice President Mike Pence who was involved in the coronavirus task force, said on MSNBC. “Quite frankly, it’s a lack of transparency that happens on a daily basis even amongst the White House staff. What you’re watching is a breach in protocols.”