CPAC organizer blasts 'media hysteria' over coronavirus

Michael Isikoff
Chief Investigative Correspondent
President Trump is greeted by Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union, at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Feb. 29. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

The chief organizer of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) attacked a protégé of former White House adviser Steve Bannon for spreading “near panic” about the group’s recent annual gathering, feeding what he called “media hysteria” that members of Congress and other high-level attendees might have been infected with the coronavirus at this year’s event. 

The comments by American Conservative Union chairman Matt Schlapp during an interview on Yahoo News’ “Skullduggery” podcast were the latest sign of internal feuding among President Trump’s allies about the severity of the coronavirus crisis and how CPAC organizers responded to information that one of their attendees was ill from the virus. 

Five members of Congress — including new acting White House chief of staff Rep. Mark Meadows and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz — have placed themselves under quarantine and are working from home after learning they might have interacted with a New Jersey doctor who had a gold package VIP ticket to CPAC, which was held at a hotel in suburban Maryland between Feb. 26 and 29. The infected doctor is now hospitalized with the coronavirus. 

But Schlapp singled out Raheem Kassam, a British-born conservative provocateur who co-hosts a podcast with Bannon and formerly served as a London-based editor for Breitbart News, for needlessly stoking fears among CPAC attendees by tweeting about those who might have been exposed to the doctor. Kassam has said he went public after he and others at the event came down with flu-like symptoms, but Schlapp suggested he did so because was disgruntled about not being invited to be a speaker at CPAC. 

Instead of quietly going to the doctor, “what this gentleman decided to do was take to Twitter and induce a near panic,” Schlapp told “Skullduggery.” “I'm sorry that Raheem was not included on our speaker schedule, and I'm sorry that he has a bone to pick with us. But using a health care moment where people are worried, to use that to try to stick a stake in my heart, was a mistake.”

He added: “And I think the conservatives who have acted irresponsibly here, I hold them in the same contempt as I hold reporters who are simply trying to make this a big political deal.”

Contacted Wednesday by Yahoo News, Kassam disputed Schlapp’s characterization.

“For Matt to come out and attack me personally — this goes to what he’s concerned about: It’s about Matt Schlapp’s public image and it’s not the health and welfare of those who attended CPAC. … Look, I understand for Matt this is a PR crisis, but this is a health crisis. … I feel very bad he has this PR disaster on his hands, but I’m going to look after my friends.” 

Kassam said he decided to go public out of a sense of civic duty after he and others at CPAC who felt ill weren’t being given timely information about their potential exposure to the virus. It was only after he did so that members of Congress — Cruz, Meadows, Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona and Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida — publicly announced they were quarantining themselves. Gaetz even thanked him for alerting him, Kassam said. 

“My phone was blowing up all weekend,” Kassam said. “That’s a panic. People are reaching out to me because they couldn’t get any answers out of the ACU.” Kassam said as many as a dozen people contacted him telling him they were also feeling ill after attending CPAC. “We had flu symptoms — headaches, chest tightening — I’ve had congestion, a fever,” he said. Kassam said he was tested for the virus on Tuesday and is awaiting the results, which he expects to get on Friday. 

The spat between Schlapp and Kassam came as CPAC sought to calm fears by sending out an email Wednesday to thousands of attendees assuring them that the infected conference-goer — whom the group has not publicly identified — did not attend any breakout sessions and “limited his interactions to very few people.” 

“We have tried to be clear about this, but to clear up any confusion: ANY individual who had direct contact with the individual who tested positive has been contacted in a one-on-one capacity,” reads the email, a copy of which was obtained by Yahoo News. “Additionally, attendees that we believe may have been in the same room with him at some point have been contacted on a one-on-one basis, as well.” 

The controversy over CPAC mirrors the larger debate about how the Trump administration has handled the virus scare and whether Democratic members of Congress and the media have been hyping it in order to politically wound the president. Schlapp, an ardent Trump ally whose wife, Mercedes, is a former top White House aide who now serves as a senior adviser to the president’s reelection campaign, fed that narrative during the “Skullduggery” interview, decrying what he called “the insanity of the media hysteria” over the virus. 

“After living through the last three or four days of the coverage that we had at CPAC … I have to say this is the news media’s worst hour in the history of our country,” Schlapp said.

Download or subscribe on iTunes: “Skullduggery” from Yahoo News 

He pointed to the recent conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the country’s leading pro-Israel lobbying group, at which two and possibly three attendees were reportedly ill with the virus. Yet that group’s handling of the matter hasn’t gotten the same level of scrutiny as CPAC, he said.

“Can’t find a story” about AIPAC and the virus, Schlapp said, a contrast he attributed to the fact that many top Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, spoke at the event. (Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also spoke at the AIPAC conference, and contrary to Schlapp’s claims, there have been multiple news stories about AIPAC attendees who had the virus. The stories noted that AIPAC had publicly tweeted about the presence of the infected individuals.)

“All I'm saying is this. If the media doesn’t want to make it seem like this is just a way to bring Trump down, just follow corona where it leads you,” Schlapp said. “It didn't just lead you to CPAC. It led you to AIPAC. … How come there are no calls going into a conference that predominantly has Democrats show up? It’s just ridiculous.”

One possible reason for the perceived difference is that Trump spoke at CPAC and was greeted by Schlapp with a handshake. Schlapp said he was so busy during the conference that he doesn’t recall whether he shook hands or otherwise interacted with the ill doctor, but that it would be “inaccurate” to suggest he in any way might have infected the president.

For his part, Schlapp said he has kept himself under quarantine and has worked from home since he first learned on March 7, one week after CPAC ended, that one of the attendees was ill with the virus. Once he did so, he said, he reached out to the doctor’s brother and learned he is currently recovering in the hospital. Schlapp said he has also done what he could to alert CPAC attendees. One reason for the controversy over the group’s handling of the matter is that Schlapp, in an effort to protect the patient’s privacy, did not identify the ill doctor so attendees could know whether they had interacted with him.  

“I’m going to be honest with you guys. It has been such a whirlwind for four days,” Schlapp said. “I mean, I’m not trying to overdramatize what I’ve had to do, but it has been very intensive work … but yes, we have been emailing and talking to the 10,000-person CPAC community multiple times.” 

As of now, Schlapp said neither he nor anybody else — other than the New Jersey doctor — is known to have come down with the virus. 

“I have no symptoms, my wife has no symptoms, my children have no symptoms, my 80-year-old mother has no symptoms, my 83-year-old father-in-law and my mother-in-law have no symptoms,” he said. “We had other extended family at CPAC — none of them have symptoms. In fact, if you look at the whole 10,000 people that assembled during the course of CPAC, we have no new corona cases.” 

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