US vice-president Mike Pence, Dr Anthony Fauci, the US government's top infectious diseases official, and two other senior leaders in the Trump administration's fight against Covid-19 were self-quarantining on Sunday as the fallout deepened over positive tests for the virus among White House staff.
News that four core members of the US pandemic task force were having to go into some degree of self-isolation could not come at a worse time for president Donald Trump. The president is trying to project an image of confidence and resolution as he encourages states to reopen their economies, while his administration is proving unable to keep the virus at bay even within the White House.
Mr Pence is self-isolating away from the White House following his press secretary’s diagnosis of Covid-19 on Friday, three people familiar with the situation told Bloomberg. The vice-president did not attend a meeting on Saturday with Mr Trump and top military officials.
Mr Pence tested negative for coronavirus infection on Sunday but is staying home out of an abundance of caution.
Dr Fauci (79), a calming face of the Trump administration’s pandemic response, has begun what is being described as “modified quarantine” involving some work from home after he had “low-risk” contact with a White House staffer who tested positive.
He is joined by Dr Stephen Hahn, commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration, and Dr Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who have both gone into two weeks of isolation.
Dr Fauci is still due to testify before a Senate committee next week, CBS News reported, while practising social distancing and wearing a mask.
The scramble to protect Mr Trump from potential infection was prompted after two White House staffers tested positive. They included a US navy officer who served as valet for the president and the press spokeswoman for Mr Pence, Katie Miller, who is married to senior aide Stephen Miller.
Two positive tests
Senior officials took to Sunday talk shows to try to counter the impression of internal shambles around the president.
Larry Kudlow, the White House national economic council director, told ABC's This Week that the two positive tests were insignificant.
“In terms of the White House complex, which is an enormous place, at least 500 people, probably much more than that ... those who have tested positive is still a small fraction.”
Kevin Hassett, a special adviser to Mr Trump on the pandemic, told CNN's State of the Union that extra precautions were being taken. Nobody was being allowed to have an audience with Mr Trump, he emphasised, unless they had tested negative.
However, Mr Hassett said there was a degree of risk involved in working in the West Wing, given the age of the building and the working conditions.
“The West Wing, even with all the testing in the world and the best medical team on earth, is a relatively cramped place. There are things that have to happen in that West Wing even though the building is a little old and poorly ventilated.”
The crop of infections in the White House poses the administration a problem not only in terms of keeping the president safe. It also provides an inconvenient framing to Mr Trump’s efforts to come across as upbeat in the face of the contagion.
Mr Trump has tried to appear in control by pointedly refusing to wear a mask in White House meetings, and even touring a mask-making factory in Arizona last week without carrying any protective gear.
The Associated Press reported that Mr Trump chose not to wear a mask because it would “send the wrong message” and impact his re-election chances.
The latest data from Johns Hopkins University shows that the US now has more than 1.3 million confirmed cases of Covid-19, almost a third of the global tally. There have been 78,855 recorded deaths in the US, although the real figure is likely to be considerably higher.
Mr Trump is having to deal with further bad optics about his pandemic response thanks to his predecessor Barack Obama.
In a leaked call first reported by Yahoo News, Mr Obama told former officials from his administration that the Trump administration’s handling of the crisis had been “an absolute chaotic disaster when that mindset of ‘what’s in it for me’ and ‘to heck with everybody else’...is operationalised in our government”.
Mr Trump lashed back in a tweet on Sunday morning, claiming to be getting “great marks” for the handling of coronavirus.
He went on: “Compare that to the Obama/Sleepy Joe disaster known as H1N1 Swine Flu. Poor marks, bad polls – didn’t have a clue!”
Mr Kudlow also hit back. He told ABC that “with all due respect to the former president...I really don’t want to get into a political back-and-forth here...I don’t know what he’s talking about”.
He added: “I don’t understand what President Obama is saying. It just sounds so darn political to me.” – Guardian/Bloomberg