By: Nihar Iyengar — Correspondent
On October 1, just two days after the first presidential debate, President Trump and First Lady Melania Trump both tested positive for COVID-19. In the ensuing days and weeks, many other senior GOP officials tested positive for the virus which they had most likely contracted at several events related to Trump’s re-election campaign. These events included numerous rallies held in several states in the months leading up to the election.
The main “super-spreader” event which instigated the White House COVID-19 outbreak was the September 26 Rose Garden nomination ceremony of now-Justice Amy Coney Barrett. More than 150 guests were present at the outdoor event where they were seated in close proximity with each other without regard for social distancing, and masks were optional as long as the attendee had tested negative for the virus that day. There were also multiple indoor receptions inside the White House in the following hours where masks remained a rare sight.
In the following two weeks, more than ten senior Republicans tested positive for the coronavirus.
Utah Senator Mike Lee, who was seen hugging several other attendees while holding a mask in his hand, was one of those who contracted the virus. “Yesterday morning, I was experiencing symptoms consistent with longtime allergies. Out of an abundance of caution, I sought medical advice and was tested for COVID-19,” said Lee on October 2. “I will remain isolated for the next 10 days,” he added. Exactly 10 days later, Lee was present at the first Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing held for Barrett.
Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina, who is seen routinely wearing a mask on Capitol Hill, was pictured in close proximity with Barrett at the Rose Garden event and publicized his positive test result soon after Lee. “Thankfully, I have no symptoms and I feel well. As we all know, COVID-19 is a very contagious and deadly virus, especially because many carriers are asymptomatic,” he said in a statement given to the AP. Tillis suspended in-person campaign events and temporarily closed his Charlotte campaign office while staff who came into contact with him entered isolation and received virus tests.
Other top Republicans to test positive for the virus in the weeks following the nomination ceremony included Former White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany, and former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.
“The ramifications are wildly random and potentially deadly,” said Christie in a statement to the press. “No one should be happy to get the virus, and no one should be cavalier about being infected or infecting others,” he added. Christie, an overweight asthmatic, spent seven days in an intensive care unit at the Morristown Medical Center in recovery.
“I was wrong to not wear a mask at the Amy Coney Barrett announcement, and I was wrong not to wear a mask at my multiple debate prep sessions with the President and the rest of the team. I hope that my experience shows my fellow citizens that you should follow CDC guidelines in public no matter where you are and wear a mask to protect yourself and others,” said Christie.
Christie is one of the Republicans advocating for the enforcement of mask usage, in stark contrast to President Trump’s message to not “let [the coronavirus] dominate your life.” Urging Americans to follow the best public health practices while safely reopening businesses, Christie said that “after all, we are America, the world’s greatest hope.”
Other cases unrelated to the Barrett confirmation event include Ronna McDaniel, the chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, who frequently interacts with President Trump. Also, Republican Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin contracted the virus but was asymptomatic, and declared that COVID-19 “is not a death sentence.”
Prior to election day, a second Coronavirus outbreak hit the White House, not only affecting government officials but also over 100 Secret Service personnel responsible for protecting the President as he traveled around the country from rally to rally.
In late October, Chief of Staff to the Vice President Marc Short, along with three other staff members working in Vice President Pence’s office tested positive for the virus. Pence’s press secretary, Devin O’Malley, said that Pence would continue on the campaign trail, holding rallies in Florida and Ohio before arriving in the battleground state of Pennsylvania.
“While Vice President Pence is considered a close contact with Mr. Short, in consultation with the White House Medical Unit, the Vice President will maintain his schedule in accordance with the CDC guidelines for essential personnel,” O’Malley wrote in a statement.
The first high-profile White House staffer to test positive in the second outbreak was Trump’s Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, whose infection at an election night event was not widely known until reported by Bloomberg’s Jennifer Jacobs. Trump campaign adviser Corey Lewandowski who spent several days in Philadelphia promoting the campaign’s legal challenges against the election results also tested positive.
Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson was infected after attending the same event as Meadows which occurred at the White House and again involved hundreds of maskless attendees. He told the Washington Post that he was experiencing a “fever of 101 [degrees], chills, muscle cramps, respiratory issues, and fatigue.” In a new interview, Carson said that he took oleander extract, a herbal supplement unapproved by the FDA that has been promoted by Mike Lindell, the CEO of MyPillow and ardent supporter of President Trump. Carson, a neurosurgeon by trade, has not however expressed his complete approval for widespread usage of the extract.
“It’s not time for it yet,” said Carson. “What hopefully will happen is that clinical trials will occur. This should go the same route as other things do. We shouldn’t, you know, skip the process,” he added.
On Tuesday, 87-year-old Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa tweeted that he had tested positive. As President pro tempore, he is the most senior Republican in the Senate and his absence has had an immediate impact. His quarantine forced him to miss votes on Tuesday, including the nomination of Judy Shelton to the Federal Reserve, which ultimately failed to pass.
Earlier this week, two House Democrats, Cheri Bustos of Illinois and Colorado’s Ed Perlmutter, also tested positive for the virus in isolated incidents.
Bustos, the chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said she was experiencing mild symptoms and was self-isolating in Illinois, working from home until cleared by her physician. “We must all continue to be vigilant in following public health best practices: wear a mask, practice social distancing, get your flu shot and wash your hands,” Bustos said, adding that “The only way we will get this pandemic under control is by working together.”
Perlmutter issued a statement on Tuesday night saying that he had tested positive for COVID-19 but was asymptomatic, isolating in his D.C. apartment and working remotely. “This serves as an important reminder that this virus is highly contagious and should be taken seriously. As we enter the holiday season, I encourage everyone to continue to heed the warnings of no personal gatherings, social distancing, and wearing a mask,” he added.