WASHINGTON — President Trump appeared to be closing in on one of the many unanswered questions about his bout with coronavirus: How did he get infected?
On Thursday, he suggested it happened during a ceremony with family members of fallen soldiers on Sept. 27. “They come within an inch of my face sometimes, they want to hug me, and they want to kiss me,” Trump explained in a phone interview with Fox Business about the event honoring Gold Star families.
But Trump and his aides have repeatedly dodged an equally important and easier-to-answer question, one that would help uncover who the president himself may have exposed — including potentially his rival, Joe Biden — and whether he should have been campaigning in the days before he announced his diagnosis late last week: the date of his last negative COVID-19 test.
This repeated refusal by Trump, his doctors, and top aides raises questions about when the president first became contagious, and his judgment in traveling around the country after at least one top staffer began showing symptoms. A bevy of Trump’s top aides have since fallen ill, and several of the nation’s top military leaders are in quarantine after interacting with a Coast Guard admiral who tested positive after attending the Gold Star event.
Trump’s chief of staff Mark Meadows, his physician Sean Conley, and other aides and campaign officials have all refused to answer the question. Their explanations range from wanting to protect Trump’s privacy to not being in the loop on the president’s testing timeline. Sometimes, they urge reporters to focus on the future, not the past.
But the question is relevant to the immediate future, public health experts say, because it could guide the contact tracing effort that has belatedly begun at the White House. An official from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention embedded in the White House Medical Unit is contact tracing to ensure those who had direct contact with the many White House COVID-19 cases isolate and are tested, so they don’t continue to spread the disease.
“The more precision that we can have in terms of the last day he was negative…the more precise contact tracing efforts can be,” said Dr. Howard Koh, a former top official at the Department of Health and Human Services during the Obama administration. “Having precision on that whole process is very important, and we don’t have that now.”
The question also has political importance given the White House’s COVID-19 outbreak has drawn blistering criticism of Trump’s approach to handling the disease both in his own home and as president. Even some Republicans are criticizing the president for holding events — some indoors — without social distancing or masks. This week, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell suggested he’s avoided going to the White House since August because officials there appeared to have a lax approach to COVID-19.
“My impression was their approach to how to handle this was different from mine,” McConnell told reporters.
If it turns out Trump had not been tested for coronavirus in the days before he received a positive result, it would reinforce the concern he carelessly exposed his own donors in New Jersey and others, even as those around him, including top staffer Hope Hicks, were falling ill.
“It is a very important question for our country,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, told reporters Thursday. “Let us see a date, a time, when you last tested negative before you admitted to this virus.”
On Friday, White House aide Brian Morgenstern would not even confirm in an interview with MSNBC whether Trump had received a negative test result within 72 hours of the Sept. 29 debate against Joe Biden, as the Cleveland Clinic required of both candidates.
“You are very focused on looking backwards,” Morgenstern replied. He said the last negative test result is not necessary for the ongoing contact tracing effort, which involves finding and warning those who had direct contact with Trump and other cases 48 hours before their first positive test. The Washington, D.C., Department of Health characterized the White House’s contact tracing efforts so far as “limited.”
The White House used rapid COVID-19 tests for those in close contact with Trump, although most public health experts say relying just on rapid testing, without also using masks and social distancing, is inadequate to prevent the spread of the disease. It’s unclear exactly how often the president himself was tested. In July, press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said the president was tested “multiple times a day,” which Trump later contradicted when he told reporters he was tested every two to three days.
In May, the White House said Trump tested negative after a staffer fell ill with the virus. Now, however, they say releasing test results puts Trump’s privacy at risk.
“I can’t reveal that at this time,” said White House spokeswoman Alyssa Farah on Thursday. “The doctors would like to keep it private.”
Florida Representative Donna Shalala, former Health and Human Services secretary in the Clinton administration, noted Trump could authorize his doctors or staffers to release the information if he wanted to.
“The fact that he’s covering it up suggests he has something to hide,” said Shalala, a Biden surrogate. “That’s the only conclusion you can come to.”
Anthony Scaramucci, who served a brief stint as Trump’s White House communications director and has since become highly critical of him, speculated in a tweet that the obfuscation around the testing means Trump may have been sick “earlier than we all thought.”
“Could he have debated [Biden] sick with Covid-19?” Scaramucci asked. “We won’t know but we can smell the recklessness and lack of regard for others.”
When asked a battery of questions about White House testing procedures in recent weeks by the Globe, White House spokesman Judd Deere replied only, “the President is tested regularly.”
Trump is eager to show voters that he recovered, planning to hold an in-person event at the White House on Saturday and a rally in Florida on Monday. In a Fox News interview Friday night, he said he had been retested but hadn’t received the results. Still, Trump asserted he was either “at the bottom of the scale” or virus free.
But avoiding the question about his last negative test may further the perception that Trump is not being transparent or honest about his condition, following Conley dodging other key questions during his hospital stay. A recent CNN poll found that just 12 percent of Americans said they had faith in most of what they hear from the White House about the president’s health.
“They need to get this episode behind them as soon as possible,” said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist and former aide to Senator Marco Rubio. “It’s really hard to do that when they won’t answer fundamental questions.”
Trump’s reticence is provoking eye rolls from those who worked on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential bid, given how his campaign pushed false information questioning her health, including suggesting she had an illness affecting her brain, after Clinton fainted at a 9/11 anniversary ceremony.
“There’s irony all over this,” said Amanda Renteria, who worked on Clinton’s campaign.
But Renteria said the outbreak at the White House brings the focus back on Trump’s handling of the coronavirus at a crucial time for Democrats, who are making the case that the country’s high COVID-19 death toll is at least partially the president’s fault.
“It’s hard to say everything’s OK when your own White House is a hot spot,” she said.