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The White House has military grade weaponry and a specialized air ventilation system, but experts say that’s not enough to protect a cavalier president from the coronavirus

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  • President Trump’s own actions during COVID-19 contradict the advice of his own government advisers, including travel, not social distancing and taking a controversial prescription drug that could be deadly to people his age.
  • It’s a macho message aimed at projecting strength as Trump heads into a fraught re-election battle against former Vice President Joe Biden.
  • Trump insists he’s not concerned about the risks. “I’ve felt no vulnerability whatsoever,” he told reporters last week.
  • But a former Secret Service member said there are limits to protecting people in the White House from the coronavirus. “You can’t envelope it in a prophylactic,” the ex-agent said. 
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Donald Trump has the best security in the world, but his cavalier behavior over the last three months during the deadly coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated even the president himself can still pierce that bubble.

It doesn’t matter that armed agents follow Trump wherever he goes or that his home is a fortress with military-grade weaponry and a specialized air ventilation system that detects even the faintest whiff of radiation or a chemical agent.

For Trump, a renowned germaphobe, his renegade response to what he’s dubbed the “invisible enemy” has left national security experts questioning whether the president recognizes the coronavirus as the serious threat to his safety that it really is. As always with Trump, political insiders say he’s motivated by politics and the need to project strength to voters headed into his November re-election fight with former Vice President Joe Biden. That explains why he refuses to wear a mask, insists he’s not vulnerable despite aides around him falling ill and a seeming pride in his disclosure that he’s popping a controversial and high-risk antimalarial drug to prevent infection. 

“It’s hard enough to spot suicide bombers and people looking to poison him,” said Douglas Smith, a former Obama-era top Department of Homeland Security official. “Now his most loyal close followers who worship the ground he walks on can inadvertently be the person that poisons him by getting him sick.”

Smith added that there’s a clear and present national security threat should both Trump and Vice President Mike Pence take ill with the virus. 

“The last thing we want is our adversaries thinking we’re weakened because our two political leaders are both sick,” he said. 

The list of examples demonstrating Trump’s dismissive attitude to COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, keep piling up.

As the rest of the country started shutting down in early March, the president squeezed in a final trip to Mar-a-Lago for a special dinner with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, whose entourage included an infected aide. 

Throughout the early weeks of the pandemic, Trump’s advisers urged Americans to distance themselves. But the president during one on-camera press briefing in mid-March shook hands with a guests. He’s also repeatedly stood shoulder to shoulder with Pence and other top staffers. Following White House policies at the time, no one wore masks. 

Then came the 73-year old president’s surprise disclosure Monday — just days after a second White House employee tested positive for COVID-19 — that he’s secretly been taking the drug hydroxychloroquine for weeks as a preventive treatment despite federal guidelines warning it could be deadly to people in his age demographic. 

More than 90,000 Americans have died from the coronavirus, a sharp contrast with the macho image Trump wants blasted out during his frequent appearances from the White House, his banter on social media, and through his recent day trips beyond the DC Beltway to Arizona and Pennsylvania, both critical swing states this November. 

“It’s a tough call,” said a person close to the Trump White House. “He has to be as safe as he can be. But he has to also do his job and he has to exercise leadership, and I think the best thing the president can be doing right now, to the extent he can, is signalling to the American people: ‘Look we need to get back to normal as much as you safely can.'” 

“He’s doing some travel but not as much as he’d otherwise would be doing,” this person added. “He’s taking some meetings but not the way he’d otherwise do them. He’s deferring things because now is not the time to partake in them. He’s doing as much as he can consistent with what people are telling him is relatively low risk.”

Trump’s White House has been testing staff and reporters in close contact with the president and vice president since the start of April. And they recently expanded testing for everyone in the White House, prompting long lines of people to snake out the building’s westside entrance as they wait for their nasal swab test that gets run through a small Abbott machine. 

“You can tell some people are more nervous than others,” said one senior White House official. “People have a different tolerance for this, they have their own social distancing, hand-washing routines.”

They also have colleagues who’ve gotten sick.

Pence press secretary Katie Miller, who is married to Trump’s speechwriter and adviser Stephen Miller, tested positive for COVID-19 last week. So did a military valet for the president, a diagnosis that frustrated Trump because there didn’t appear to be a more regimented protocol in place to test the professional staff who get close to him, according to the person close to the president. 

After Miller and the valet tested positive, Trump mandated White House aides begin wearing masks inside the building – although not for himself. 

Speaking to reporters last week, the president downplayed any kind of failure in the White House’s testing protocols by noting the latest aide to test positive had been negative the day before and that three others who were in contact with the sick staffer were “totally negative.”

“So that’s not breaking down,” Trump said. “It can happen. It’s the hidden enemy. Remember that. It’s the hidden enemy. And so things happen. But the three tested negative. The one who tested positive will be fine. They will be absolutely fine.”

Secret Service face mask.JPG

A US Secret Service wears a protective face mask as he stands at his post on the West Wing colonnade in front of the Cabinet Room as President Donald Trump holds a coronavirus disease outbreak response briefing in May in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington.

Kevin Lamarque/REUTERS


Trump’s public optimism belies a series of contradictory messages about what he’s doing to stay healthy during the country’s worst public health crisis in more than a century.

Inside the White House, people close to the president say he often stays hunkered down with the same small group of staffers, whether it’s during his private time in the residence or inside the West Wing itself. While many parts of the White House have cramped hallways, they note the Oval Office where the president frequently holds meetings is an expansive room. 

“Most of the time people are six feet away,” the person close to Trump said. “When he’s at his desk you’re six feet away even if you’re in the chairs next to his desk. The Resolute desk is huge.”

Trump last week delivered a different message about the flow of people in the White House when he described “tremendous numbers of people coming in” the building. 

“Normally, you wouldn’t do that,” the president said. “But because we’re running a country, we want to keep our country running, so we have a lot of people coming in and out.”

Trump explained that most of the people who do come in the White House get tested for coronavirus “depending on what portion of the Oval Office area they’re going in” and that “everybody coming into the president’s office gets tested.”

“I’ve felt no vulnerability whatsoever,” he added.

But national security and public health experts say the president may want to think twice about his assessment. Just for starters, a preliminary study said the Abbott ID Now test used in the White House produces incorrect results about half of the time. 

“These things are incredibly difficult to control. It’s just like subways. With so many people coming and going it’s not surprising people are becoming infected,” said Daniel Gerstein, a former Department of Homeland Security official and now a senior policy researcher at the Rand Corp.

Asked for comment for this story, White House aides referred to press secretary Kayleigh McEnany’s previous statements defending the president’s safety and health amid the outbreak. “That’s not even something that we’re addressing. We’re keeping the president healthy,” she said last week.

Trump may have added to his own health risks by changing up his own daily intake of medicine. 

Last month, Rudy Giuliani started advising the president about hydroxychloroquine and the notion that the antimalarial prescription drug had the potential to help with both the recovery of infected patients and for prevention from COVID-19. 

But that’s a far cry from what most medical experts say about the controversial treatment. There’s no evidence it works for treating the coronavirus, and the Food and Drug Administration issued a warning in April that hydroxychloroquine could cause heart problems and should only be used under strict medical supervision. 

Trump’s disclosure Monday sidestepped those concerns.

“I happen to be taking it, I’m taking it, hydroxychloroquine, right now,” he told reporters. “Yeah, a couple of weeks ago I started taking it because I think it’s good. I’ve heard a lot of good stories. And if it’s not good, I’ll tell you right? I’m not going to get hurt by it.”

Later Monday, Trump’s White House physician released a memo saying he’d had “numerous discussions” with the president about the “evidence for and against the use of hydroxychloroquine.”

“We concluded the potential benefit from treatment outweighed the relative risks,” wrote Dr. Sean Conley.

Trump does have high quality medical care available. The White House keeps multiple physicians for the president and there’s even a surgical room on premise for emergencies.  

But the president’s doctors in and out of the White House also have a long history of fudging their health assessments of him. Confirmation that Trump is now taking hydroxychloroquine appears to only add to that list.

“I cannot stress enough: This will kill you,” Neil Cavuto, the Fox News host, said on his program just minutes after airing footage of Trump acknowledging he’s been using the drug “every day” for the last 10 days.  

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, among the president’s chief antagonists and second in line to succeed to the presidency if Trump and Pence were incapacitated, also put a fine point on the situation. 

“I would rather he not be taking something that has not been approved by the scientists, especially in his age group, and in his, shall we say, weight group: ‘Morbidly obese,’ they say,” the California Democrat said later Monday night on CNN. 

Secret Service masks

Members of the US Secret Service stand at their posts as President Donald Trump speaks about the coronavirus during a May 11 press briefing in the Rose Garden of the White House.

Alex Brandon/AP Photo


The Secret Service and a much larger national security apparatus have worked tirelessly to protect presidents since long before Trump or the coronavirus showed up at the White House. 

Even under normal circumstances the job has its challenges. Scandals rocked the agency throughout the Obama administration, from the 2009 state dinner party crashers to a 2014 incident where a man with a knife jumped the White House fence and made it all the way into the East Room before agents stopped him. 

Beyond the obvious physical threats to the president, the department for years has also been thinking about more unconventional weapons. 

Agents now scan the rope lines that presidents frequently walk down on the lookout for someone who could purposefully harm the US leader with a drop of a nerve agent, like the kind that led to the 2017 assassination of Kim Jong-nam, the half brother of North Korean President Kim Jong-un. They’ve even prepared for scenarios where an attacker with a professional grade fogger, like the kind used to kill mosquitoes, releases a deadly chemical or biological weapon in the public park just outside the White House grounds that wafts onto the otherwise secure premises. That’s where a sensor-heavy air filtration system comes into play.

“It’s an incredibly efficient way to manage the purity of the air in the White House,” said Joe Funk, a former Secret Service agent who protected Obama and Republican Mitt Romney during his 2012 presidential campaign.

But the coronavirus represents an entirely different kind of threat to the president and the overall White House grounds. Presidents don’t typically come into contact with that many new people during the course of a day and staff can limit those interactions even more. But those protocols alone can’t keep Trump safe from COVID-19.

For the people charged with protecting the president, it means trying to balance not hampering Trump’s ability to do his job however he sees fit while ensuring threats to his safety are minimized. That’s a challenge when a proven deadly intruder is already in the building.

“You can’t envelope it in a prophylactic,” Funk said of the limits to protecting people inside the White House from the coronavirus.

There’s also now a new element of trust that comes with deciding who to allow into the West Wing and the other offices surrounding the president on any given day — and the expectation they’ll speak up if they’re experiencing the symptoms associated with COVID-19. Those risks are expected to rise even more when Trump travels for his 2020 re-election campaign beyond his secure White House bubble and people may not be as forthcoming because they don’t want to lose out on an opportunity to meet the president.

“This is such a new and evolving time in our life,” Funk said. “I don’t know if there’s anything you can do other than put up all the safeguards you possibly can and in some ways, I hate to say it, you hope for the best.”

 

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