Why would the White House refuse to let CDC do contract tracing on its Sept. 26 party for Amy Coney Barrett?
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But Prince Prospero was happy and dauntless and sagacious. When his dominions were half depopulated, he summoned to his presence a thousand hale and light-hearted friends from among the knights and dames of his court.
—Edgar Allan Poe, “The Masque of the Red Death”
It is now more than a week since the White House hosted a Rose Garden ceremony to announce and celebrate the Supreme Court nomination of Amy Coney Barrett. More than a dozen people who attended have tested positive for Covid since then, including the president of the United States, his campaign manager Bill Stepien, and his press secretary Kayleigh McEnamy, making this a possible “superspreader event.”
The Centers for Disease Control, standing by to send in a contact tracing team, has been rebuffed. In any other administration we would call that very odd. In this administration we call it unsurprising. Dr. Sean Conley says that contact tracing is underway internally, but multiple news sources have tried and failed to find anyone present at the event who was interrogated, and Conley’s reputation for truthfulness has taken a few hits this past weekend. CNN reports that it it interviewed “more than half a dozen people who came into contact with Trump over the past week” yet “uncovered little more than a few phone calls and emails to potentially infected people encouraging them to get tested.”
Probably the White House is conducting something that it considers to be contact tracing. But whatever it’s doing clearly doesn’t come close to meeting the CDC’s guidelines, which is why it wants to keep the CDC out.
Why can’t real contact tracing take place? Because that would require various parties, starting with the president, to speak truthfully about when they learned they’d been exposed to someone with Covid; when they got tested; what type of test they received; and what precautions they took not to infect other people. All of which might furnish an uncomfortably precise answer to Howard Baker’s favorite Watergate question, “What did the president know and when did he know it?”
Perhaps other top officials in the White House could be counted on to speak truthfully if the president agreed to be truthful. But Donald Trump has never needed much encouragement to lie even about trivial matters. And this particular matter isn’t trivial. In this instance, the likeliest explanation for White House evasions on this matter is that Trump learned he’d been exposed to Covid much sooner than we’ve been told, and that he should have quarantined himself for most of last week.
Trump is already coming under heavy criticism for making various public appearances—a rally in Duluth, a fundraiser in Bedminster, N.J.— after he he knew Hope Hicks had Covid, or at least after he knew she was showing symptoms. We learned of Hicks’s infection not because the White House revealed it, but because a Bloomberg reporter found out about it. A public statement on Saturday about Trump having had Covid for 72 hours had to be walked back because it contradicted the official timeline, which is that Trump learned he had Covid on Thursday. Seventy-two hours would have meant Trump learned he had Covid on Wednesday, and kept it secret for two days.
One compelling question is whether Trump knew he’d been exposed to Covid when he debated Joe Biden on Tuesday evening. While Trump was interrupting Biden and hurling infantile insults at him, was he also sending aerosolized virus particles in the vice president’s general direction? (As of Monday the CDC concedes that the virus can be transmitted to someone who is more than six feet away, information that it tried for awhile to suppress, presumably under pressure from the White House.)
According to Chris Wallace, both candidates were supposed to be tested prior to the debate, but Trump arrived too late to be tested. “There was an honor system when it came to the people that came into the hall from the two campaigns,” Wallace said.
Biden has repeatedly tested negative for the virus, but we won’t know for certain for a few days more whether he's in the clear.
Apparently Hicks tested negative on Wednesday morning, then tested positive on Wednesday evening. If the official story is correct that Trump learned he’d been exposed to Covid when Hicks tested positive, that would mean he didn’t respond irresponsibly by showing up at the debate on Tuesday.
But what if the official story is untrue? What if Trump learned he might have been exposed to Covid before Hicks tested positive? Then Trump might have been wildly reckless to show up in Cleveland Tuesday for the debate.
We are talking, after all, about a notorious germaphobe, one who persuaded himself he didn’t need to wear a mask because he was constantly being tested, as were the people all around him. It strains credulity that it took Trump four days after that Rose Garden party to learn of his possible exposure.
What if Trump and Hicks caught it from a common source—from that Rose Garden party—and Trump knew he’d been exposed as early as Monday? Jamie Dupree of Cox Media Group notes that “two days after the crowded Rose Garden announcement for Amy Coney Barrett, the White House was suddenly using separate speaking spots for the President and other speakers.” This was sufficiently unusual for Dupree to make note of it at the time.
The White House’s stinginess with reporters in sharing even the most basic facts about its Covid outbreak makes clear that it’s hiding something. On Sunday McEnamy refused to say how many White House staffers tested positive for Covid, citing privacy concerns—even though nobody’s privacy could possibly be violated by a simple number. What that number might reveal, though, is that the outbreak is further along than was previously known—which would suggest Trump cottoned to it earlier than Wednesday. Which would come out if CDC sent in a contract tracing team.
I’ve seen it reported how very difficult it would be to conduct proper contact tracing on the 150 people who attended the Rose Garden event. In fact, the opposite is true. There is nobody easier to track down than a person who has entered the White House grounds, because they don’t let you through the gate unless you provide quite a lot of information about yourself. This information gets logged.
Moreover, the sort of people who show up at such events are not exactly off the grid. A lot of them were members of Congress, who are laughably easy to track. A lot of them worked at the White House, where, again, everyone was constantly getting tested and re-tested. We know who these people are, and where they live, and what their contact information is.
Also: The whole thing was captured on video and in photographs! We know where everybody sat at the announcement. I already know more about the whereabouts of people at this event than I do about who talked to whom at my own wedding two years ago. Apparently Bill Barr had a long natter with Kellyanne Conway, who’s tested positive for Covid. Initially he said he would not self-quarantine, because of course he did; now apparently he’s doing it.
The Rose Garden event created the sort of tracing evidence that medical professionals usually can only dream about. But for some reason, the White House won’t let the CDC professionals in. Might that perhaps be because the president is not being very forthcoming about when he learned he’d been exposed to Covid, and when he knew he had it? Might Trump’s behavior have been even more irresponsible than we’ve been told?
Perhaps not. We don’t really know. But it’s been a long time since the answer to such questions has turned out, on further investigation, to be “no.”
Note: This post was updated on Oct. 5.