President Donald Trump has publicly suggested that he caught COVID-19 during a ceremony to honor fallen soldiers. It’s more likely he was the one exposing the military families to the virus.
Epidemiologists familiar with USA TODAY’s efforts to trace the contacts of White House officials say that Trump likely was in the early stages of COVID-19 days before hosting a series of events leading up to the ceremony for the Gold Star families on Sunday, Sept. 27.
Reporters have scoured photos, video, social media and travel schedules to identify and trace the whereabouts of White House officials, aides and those in their orbit who have recently contracted the novel coronavirus.
Aside from the president and first lady, so far the only others from the Gold Star event known to have tested positive are Coast Guard Adm. Charles Ray and Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany.
By contrast, at least a dozen people who attended the announcement of the president’s nominee for the Supreme Court the previous day, Saturday, have tested positive.
“There are several other people who got sick, and the only thing that they had in common is that they attended the Saturday event,” said Jorge Salinas, hospital epidemiologist and clinical assistant professor of infectious diseases at the University of Iowa. “That’s the smoking gun.”
It was during a Thursday interview with Fox Business that Trump implied he caught the virus during the annual veterans event, held indoors at the White House. According to those in attendance, about 25 families were involved and they were required to take a rapid COVID-19 test before entering.
Based on how COVID-19 incubates and the amount of time it takes to develop symptoms, infectious disease specialists familiar with USA TODAY’s reporting say it’s more likely Trump contracted the virus earlier.
They said they cannot pinpoint “patient zero” of the White House outbreak without access to more robust government tracing and molecular typing to identify matching virus samples. Further complicating matters is the administration’s refusal to disclose the date of Trump’s last negative test.
Tracing the White House COVID-19 outbreak:
Contact tracing and visualizing the people exposed to COVID-19 by Trump outbreak
White House officials said the administration has followed Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for contact tracing, which has included going back 48 hours from a positive test involving any White House staff. For those with no official ties to the White House, it was up to their own doctor to attempt tracing.
The point of contact tracing is to curb the spread by encouraging those exposed to the virus to quarantine. By now, some epidemiologists believe the window of opportunity for that already has closed.
After months of downplaying the disease’s dangers, Trump announced on Oct. 2 that he had contracted the novel coronavirus. More than 33 people tied to the White House have since tested positive, including the first lady, senior adviser Hope Hicks and McEnany.
USA TODAY found some of those individuals came in dangerously close contact with at least 120 others in the days around the Supreme Court event. Many then scattered across the country and continued to go about their daily lives, traveling, attending campaign rallies and fundraisers, going to the gym and leading religious sermons.
During the Fox Business interview Trump suggested that he caught the virus because he had such close contact with veterans’ families.
“I can’t back up and say: ‘Give me room. I want room. Give me 12 feet. Stay 12 feet away when you talk,’” Trump said. The military family members had “come within an inch of my face, sometimes”, he added. “They want to hug me, and they want to kiss me. And they do. And, frankly, I’m not telling them to back up. I’m not doing it.”
It can take up to 14 days for someone infected with COVID-19 to fully develop symptoms, but about half begin feeling ill within a week, and by day 10, it’s 90%. On average, a person can begin to spread COVID two days before they’re symptomatic – the critical 48 hours on which the White House is focusing.
But health experts note that it’s complicated to estimate when exactly a patient becomes contagious because early symptoms can be so subtle.
“With the president’s schedule and behavior, it will be very hard to identify exactly when he got infected,” said Amesh Adalja, a medical doctor and senior scholar for the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, referring to both the veterans ceremony and the SCOTUS celebration. “If you’re going to have events like this, you’re going to get cases … this is something you would expect to happen. It was only a matter of time.”
The veterans ceremony came just one day after the event now pegged as the outbreak’s superspreader, when hundreds of conservative officials and evangelicals from across the country gathered in the Rose Garden for the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett for the Supreme Court.
Many did not wear masks or social distance. Some were photographed shaking hands, hugging and kissing, including at indoor receptions that followed the outdoor ceremony.
Public health officials tasked with stopping the spread of COVID-19 say comprehensive tracing of everyone who attended the SCOTUS event is the only way to know for sure where the White House outbreak originated and how far it has traveled.
Based solely on the timeline of his positive test, epidemiologists say it is indeed possible that Trump could have caught the virus at the Gold Star Families event. But, they said, other factors almost entirely rule out the possibility.
Ray, the admiral who confirmed he had COVID-19 on Oct. 5, and McEnany were the only other people beyond the Trumps to attend the Gold Star event and catch the virus.
Meanwhile, among those at the Barrett nomination ceremony, at least 12 went on to catch coronavirus. That includes Barrett supporters, like Notre Dame president Rev. John Jenkins, who has no official ties to the White House and did not attend the Gold Star event.
Help USA TODAY: We need assistance identifying everyone at the White House Rose Garden SCOTUS event.
Experts also point to the size and nature of both events as natural spreaders for an outbreak that could have been spawned even earlier.
By mid-September, a White House staff member already had tested positive for COVID-19. Crede Bailey, head of the White House security office, has been hospitalized with coronavirus symptoms since late last month, Bloomberg News has reported.
Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel, who also has tested positive, attended a private fundraiser with Trump at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 25. That same night, Trump was with Hicks at a rally in Virginia.
An RNC spokesman said that after her meeting with Trump, McDaniel went home to Michigan and stayed there. Four days later, she tested positive. Hicks tested positive the following day, Trump the day after that.
Gold Star event described as ‘heartwarming’
The president’s comments about the Gold Star event drew ire from Democrats in Congress and some military supporters, who cited his disrespect for the troops and lackluster response to the deadly pandemic. But military families who attended the event themselves told USA TODAY that they felt safe at the ceremony and were not bothered by the president’s remarks.
White House spokeswoman Alyssa Farah has attempted to walk back Trump’s comments about the Gold Star ceremony, telling reporters, “We by no means are blaming anyone who was present, and we did take a lot of precautions for that event so based on contact tracing and the data we have, we don’t think it arose from that event.”
She said the president’s point was that, “in the timeframe that he was potentially exposed, there were a number of different venues that he’d been at and individuals he’d interacted with that it could have come from.”
The group VoteVets, which has been critical of Trump, tweeted this week, “Like everything else, Donald Trump’s White House didn’t follow CDC guidelines with this event, and still isn’t being straight with families, or doing real contact tracing through the CDC to put their minds at ease.”
Several Democrats in Congress took to social media and issued statements lambasting Trump for his remarks, demanding an apology.
“President Trump seems to think it’s okay to try and shift the blame and scapegoat others for his own failures,” U.S. Sen. Jack Reed (D-Rhode Island), the ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, said in a statement. “Instead of casting aspersions on the families of the fallen for infecting him, President Trump should be transparent about his own actions, who he met with and when, and release detailed medical information including a timeline and do some real contact tracing to help stop the spread.”
Others also condemned Trump for his comments – and for allowing the White House outbreak to metastasize.
“For Donald Trump to continue to insult Gold Star Families and blame them for spreading a deadly pandemic that he’s actually the one spreading is beyond shameful,” said U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Illinois), who is a retired Army National Guard lieutenant colonel.
Multiple people who attended the veterans ceremony told USA TODAY they felt comfortable with the health precautions taken. After being tested on arrival, families said they were kept isolated until they received their test results. They also continued to wear masks during small group tours of the White House.
Families said they were given the option of wearing masks for the rest of the event and could choose whether to mingle with other guests or be taken to a private room.
Britt Harris, whose husband Army Spc. Christopher Harris was killed in 2017 in Afghanistan, said she and her mother-in-law opted to spend time in a private room because they were there with Harris’ 2-year-old daughter.
They rejoined the other families and officials later that evening for a ceremony that included speeches from the president and Gold Star father Steven G. Xiarhos as well as lighting candles for each of the 25 service members being honored. Harris said she didn’t expect her husband’s name to be one of two highlighted in the president’s speech.
“It was a big deal to our family,” she said. “It was really special to have him talk about Chris.”
She said her mother-in-law tested negative for COVID-19 after the event. Harris did not get tested, but quarantined with her daughter.
Texas resident Ruth Holler, whose son Lance Cpl. Luke Holler died in 2006 in Iraq, said her experience was “heartwarming” and “the trip of a lifetime.” Holler and one of her daughters told USA TODAY the seven members of their family who attended the event have not been tested, but none are showing symptoms.
Hank Cramer, whose father Capt. Harry G. Cramer was killed in Vietnam in 1957, also said that he felt safe throughout the evening. Cramer said the president spent several minutes asking about his father’s service. He and other attendees said they stood six feet away from the president and did not shake hands.
“I think he was probably speaking realistically that he might have caught the virus in any public meeting that he’s been at in the last few weeks,” Cramer said. “And I appreciate the fact that he did not shy away from us. That he came and spent the evening with us and was willing to talk with us.”
Cramer, who lives in Washington state, said he learned the president had COVID-19 from the news. That day, Cramer called a clinic in his small town and asked if he and his wife could be tested. The receptionist asked if they were showing symptoms and, when he said they were not, explained that the office only offered testing to those who were ill.
“I said, ‘well I’m asking to get tested because I was at the White House with the President of the United States last Sunday, and he has COVID’ and there was a silence at the end of the phone,” Cramer said. “They said, ‘Well in that case, come on down.’”
He said he and his wife’s tests came back negative.
Virus infiltrated White House by mid-September
A USA TODAY review of timelines and travel schedules for many of the officials now confirmed ill shows the virus had infiltrated the White House much earlier than the president let on in his Fox Business interview.
Trump confirmed in a briefing with reporters at the White House on Sept. 16 that at least one case had emerged within the administration. At the time, the White House would not confirm whom he meant and it remains unclear whether he was referring to Crede or another staffer entirely.
“It was one person. That’s – I mean, so not too much – not a person that I was associated with,” Trump said at the time.
Following the disclosure, Trump and his administration continued to flout public health guidelines by organizing large public gatherings, with little regard for face coverings and proper social distancing. In the last two weeks of September, the president participated in at least 11 rallies and fundraisers.
The very next day, Trump spoke without a mask at the White House Conference on American History, while first lady Melania Trump visited a firehouse in Manchester, New Hampshire to discuss substance abuse.
President Trump then boarded planes for events in Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
The president and U.S. Attorney General William Barr met with the attorneys general in various states about protecting consumers from social media abuse, and he hosted a Latinos for Trump roundtable at the Trump National Doral Miami on Sept. 25 before more than 150 people, many without masks. He travelled to a black economic empowerment event near Atlanta on Sept. 25, where he elbow-bumped NFL legend Herschel Walker and mingled with other supporters.
The Sept. 18 Trump rally in Minnesota alone has been associated with nine COVID-19 cases, including two hospitalizations, according to MPR News.
Even after the outbreak snowballed, and Trump himself tested positive, members of the White House have continued to skirt basic recommendations about such events, relying instead upon a strategy of testing those who are to have contact with the president.
They stopped at faith summits, campaign rallies and other political fundraisers, where they came into contact with thousands. Sen. Ron Johnson, (R-Wisconsin), a vocal critic of mask mandates, attended a fundraiser after he had taken a test for the virus, but before the results came back positive.
McEnany continued to interact with members of the media without a mask before she tested positive. And at least six faith leaders from the Rose Garden SCOTUS event gave in-person sermons the following Sunday – after Trump announced he had the coronavirus.
Kyle Bagentose and Nicholas Wu contributed to this story