INTERNATIONAL – Donald Trump’s calendar for October 1 showed a typical day for the president: time for tweeting in the morning, and a trip to his Bedminster, New Jersey, golf course in the afternoon to raise money for his cash-strapped re-election campaign.
But well out of public view, a crisis was building. A small number of officials at the White House, including Trump, learned that morning that one of his closest aides, Hope Hicks, had tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
Few people inside or outside the White House were told, and there was never serious thought given to canceling the Bedminster fundraiser, expected to raise $5 million — where the more money donors gave, the closer they got to Trump, according to a person who attended.
The White House says the fundraiser was deemed safe. But there were signs that not all was right.
For one thing, some aides who had been in proximity to Hicks on Wednesday — including White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany — were hastily pulled off the manifest for the president’s helicopter and replaced.
Then Trump steered clear of reporters assembled for the helicopter takeoff, eschewing his normal back-and-forth and cutting an unusually wide path as he strode from the Oval Office. He also avoided journalists waiting under the wing of Air Force One at Joint Base Andrews and on the flight to New Jersey and back.
At the event, Trump did the usual photo line customary for VIP donors — those who had given between $50,000 and $250,000. Inside an expansive room, the president stood in front of a presidential flag and an American flag, with tape on the ground representing a “do not cross” line six feet from guests.
One attendee recalled a couple of things: Trump made small talk, and he didn’t wear a mask. He also cut his visit short, the second time in as many days the president seemed to be hurrying through his events.
After returning to the White House, the day took an even darker turn for Trump as he announced he had tested positive for the virus.
Just 26 hours after departing the fundraiser, he landed in Marine One to be admitted to Walter Reed hospital. White House aides, familiar with Trump’s fear of germs and aversion to hospitals, say it’s a signal doctors are genuinely concerned about his condition.
The impact on the president and the White House has been profound. His re-election campaign, already struggling to gain ground against Joe Biden, has scrapped plans for fundraisers and rallies — Trump’s political lifeblood — with little more than four weeks before Election Day.
Inside the White House and his campaign, some despondent aides fear the election is lost and the president is sicker than is known. Several officials said they had been provided no more information about his condition than ordinary Americans, who have been left practically in the dark a day after his diagnosis.
Trump was administered an experimental “antibody cocktail” by White House doctors, but not much more information has been released, including whether his blood-oxygen levels are falling or even if he has a fever.
Little of it was imaginable Thursday morning. This account of the day Trump learned Hicks was infected is based on interviews with multiple administration and campaign officials, some of whom requested anonymity to describe behind-the-scenes details of one of the most significant days of the Trump presidency.
In the Dark
Hicks’s illness came as a surprise to some of the small group of aides informed Thursday morning of her diagnosis, even after traveling with her the night prior. Hicks began feeling ill during Trump’s trip to Minnesota, and when Air Force One landed in Duluth, she holed up in the plane’s private office while other staffers attended a campaign rally.
Some White House aides on the trip were more focused on the president, concerned about his lethargic behavior. His rally speech that evening was less than an hour; Trump has regularly spoken more than twice as long during other recent campaign stops.
Upon returning to Washington, Hicks waited until all other staff members had exited Air Force One before making her way off the plane — limiting possible exposure and protecting her privacy. On Thursday morning, only a few aides — and the president — were told that Hicks had, in fact, tested positive.
The secrecy came in part from a desire on the part of White House aides to shield Hicks, who has attained a level of celebrity while working for Trump — intended or not. She is regarded by many in Trump’s inner circle as both a close personal friend and victim of unfair media scrutiny. During her first stint in the White House, in 2017, she became tabloid fodder after her then-boyfriend — former staff secretary Rob Porter — was alleged to have physically abused his ex-wives.
As one of the president’s most trusted and loyal aides, she is frequently at his side.
Among the White House officials in the dark about Hicks’s condition was the press secretary, according to McEnany herself. She held a Thursday morning briefing with White House reporters even as a contact-tracing effort was quietly underway in the West Wing.
‘Two Standards of Health’
During the briefing, McEnany defended the Trump campaign for staging rallies where social distancing measures have been routinely ignored, arguing the media should set the similar expectations for large protests against racial injustice.
“There really seems to be two standards of health in this country, one for Trump supporters and one for everyone else,” McEnany said.
White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said he learned of Hicks’s positive test just as Trump left aboard Marine One, bound for his fundraiser.
“We actually pulled some of the people that had been traveling and in close contact,” Meadows said.
But there was little discussion of scrapping the president’s Bedminster trip, where he was expected to raise $5 million for a campaign facing an unexpected shortfall of cash.
“It was deemed safe for the president to go,” McEnany said Friday. “He socially distanced, it was an outdoor event.”
CDC guidelines say that people who have been in close contact with infected people, as Trump was with Hicks, should stay home for 14 days and maintain social distance from others at all times. It’s unknown if Trump was tested before leaving for his fundraiser.
At Bedminster, guests began arriving at about 12:30 p.m. About 60 people were at the VIP cocktail party-style event, none of them wearing masks, according to a person who attended. The crowd for Trump’s remarks later numbered about 150.
Those who donated between $35,000 and $250,000 had to undergo a nasal swab test for coronavirus that returns a result within 15 minutes. Top donors would have access to a roundtable discussion and a photo with the president, according to a Republican official.
As soon as the president arrived, VIP ticket holders who had given between $50,000 and $250,000 were invited to take a photo.
Donors entered the room and were instructed to stand 6 feet away from Trump at all times. The president made small talk, the person who attended said.
All of the Republican Party staff and Trump Bedminster staff wore masks, the person said. At no point during the event did the president wear a mask.
Comedian Joe Piscopo was among the donors who attended. He described the event as “very social-distanced” while disputing a New York Times report that the president appeared worn down.
“He was at the top of his game,” Piscopo said. “He looked strong and sounded great.”
End of Normalcy
The rally would be one of the last moments of normalcy for Trump before he confronted the virus that has stalked the final year of his presidency.
Within minutes of the president’s return to the White House Thursday evening, aides began receiving inquiries from a Bloomberg News reporter about Hicks’s health — the first time some had heard about her condition.
Bloomberg first reported Hicks’s infection later that evening.
Even late Thursday afternoon, few in the White House appeared aware of the potential exposure. Staffers — including a White House press aide who subsequently tested positive for the virus — were working at their desks, not wearing masks.
The Hicks revelation renewed concern among aides worried that Trump had seemed off his game in recent days. The decision was made for the president to undergo a polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, coronavirus test, regarded by White House doctors as more reliable than the rapid tests the president, top officials and reporters receive regularly at the White House.
The PCR test is more invasive, however, and the president has previously complained about how deep the nasal swab goes — remarking that there was “nothing pleasant about it.”
Interview With Hannity
As Trump awaited his results, he decided to continue with a previously scheduled phone interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity. Live on air, he announced that he and first lady Melania Trump were awaiting the results of coronavirus tests because of Hicks’s positive result.
“I just went out with a test,” Trump said. “I’ll see what — because we spend a lot of time. And the first lady just went out with a test also. So, whether we quarantine, or whether we have it, I don’t know.”
Around midnight, the results came in: The president and first lady had contracted the virus. Trump and his communications staff scrambled to figure out how to reveal the news to the American people, settling on a presidential tweet and then the release of a memo from the White House physician confirming the diagnosis.
“We will begin our quarantine and recovery process immediately,” Trump wrote at 12:54 a.m. on Friday. “We will get through this TOGETHER!”
It was last the American public would hear from their president for nearly 18 hours, when after arriving at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, he posted a video on Twitter.
“I think I’m doing well,” he said. “But we’re going to make sure that things work out.”