Since Donald Trump got coronavirus, Mark Meadows has been one of the few ever-present aides at the president’s side.
The White House chief of staff has served as a constant companion, a work colleague and, at times, the de facto chief briefer on the president’s health — all while running a Covid-crippled White House. He spent time with an infectious Trump in his hospital room and now dons goggles, an N95 mask and other protective gear to brief the president in the Oval Office.
Yet his loyalty hasn’t necessarily made him popular.
Instead, his management has left many inside the White House frustrated, including, at times, Trump himself, according to interviews with 10 current and former senior administration officials and Trump advisers. Numerous White House aides said they feel Meadows has failed to keep hundreds of aides safe, not communicating much about new positive diagnoses within the complex, or signaling what, if any, safety protocols were being adopted during a frightening seven-day stretch that saw the virus race around the administration. The lack of information has bred distrust and low staff morale in a White House already known for infighting.
The weeklong stretch marks the capstone of a tumultuous six months for Meadows’ leadership at the White House, a period that has dovetailed with a pandemic, an economic recession, nationwide protests, and now an uncertain election just 26 days away. One former administration aide said some of the dissatisfaction with Meadows has been “building for a long time, but this is an inflection point.”
“The president is the president — you go to work there knowing what he is like,” said one former senior administration official. “But if I was a midlevel staffer there I’d be pretty pissed off at Meadows and these guys. It blows my mind. Maybe they didn’t give a shit about anything.”
Trump hasn’t been entirely happy with Meadows this past week, either, according to two Republicans close to the White House. The president and many top allies were disappointed by the way Meadows undercut the White House doctor’s upbeat briefing on Saturday outside the hospital. Minutes after the briefing ended, Meadows tried to anonymously tell the press the president had gone through a “very concerning” period and was entering a “critical” stretch of his illness.
A handful of advisers argued Meadows should be fired for offering contradictory and alarming information about the president’s health. A White House aide defended the actions, arguing Meadows' comments were “misconstrued” and that he had been referring to the president’s condition on Friday, while the doctor was referencing Trump’s status on Saturday.
Then, there is the question of Meadows’ own health.
He has tested negative for the coronavirus every day since the president’s diagnosis, said one White House official. But Meadows, senior communications aide Dan Scavino and top adviser Jared Kushner are also spending copious amounts of time around Trump, who has mocked safety protocols like mask-wearing and is still in the contagious window despite his reduced symptoms. The White House aide said access to the president is “extremely limited” and that extensive safety precautions have been taken. Meadows, Scavino and Kushner, for instance, “are usually in N95s and goggles around the building after they interact” with the president, the aide added.
A second White House official argued Meadows would likely not become ill because he had adopted the medical-grade N95 mask — a move that came only after the president was hospitalized after experiencing concerning dips in his blood oxygen levels.
If Meadows contracts the coronavirus and needs to quarantine or take time off, it could create an even larger leadership vacuum at a crucial political moment. A White House spokesman declined to answer questions about who would take over the chief of staff’s duties if Meadows became infected. Mostly likely, it would fall to one of Meadows’ top deputies like John Fleming, the former congressman from Louisiana.
There is historical precedent for a deputy chief of staff temporarily taking over for his boss. During the Reagan presidency, chief of staff Howard Baker needed to spend weeks out of the White House to care for his wife, who was dying of cancer. In his absence, deputy chief of staff Ken Duberstein stepped into the role.
“I’m not sure anything changes if [Meadows] is suddenly out of the loop,” said Chris Whipple, author of “The Gatekeepers,” a book on White House chiefs of staff, and “The Spymasters,” a new book about CIA directors.
Meadows, Whipple added, “has been AWOL as the White House chief of staff from Day 1,” arguing Meadows should have played a larger role in urging Trump to act with alacrity early in the pandemic.
Meadows’ approach to the early days of the pandemic has come under new scrutiny after it was revealed by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that Meadows went ahead and hosted his daughter’s wedding in Atlanta in May, defying a statewide order at the time banning gatherings of more than 10 people. There were 11 bridesmaids, and photos of the gathering showed guests seated close together, according to the paper.
Now, Whipple said, Meadows should be more focused on adopting new safety protocols within the White House itself as staffers are “dropping like flies with the virus.”
At least 11 White House staffers have now contracted the disease.
The first White House official pushed back on that narrative, noting that senior staff have had multiple conference calls and distributed numerous memos to inform everyone about the recent coronavirus outbreak.
“We’ve had extensive guidance and procedures in place for months on what to do in these situations, where one prefers to telework, needs to telework, where they can and cannot get testing, what safety precautions are in place,” the official added, with supervisors from different departments relaying guidance to their staffs.
Still, a second former senior administration official said Meadows had done little to stabilize White House strategy more broadly during a frantic period for the country. “It is hard to watch,” the person said.
As a former congressman, Meadows had a reputation of being highly ambitious while not always being direct with his colleagues. Aides inside the White House are well aware of that reputation and are now gossiping about what other role he might be trying to position himself for while serving as Trump’s 24/7 aide.
One senior administration official believes Meadows may be eyeing the North Carolina Senate seat, which will open in 2022, when Republican Sen. Richard Burr is expected to retire. The first White House aide called the concept “ridiculous.”
“It's looking more and more like he took the job to get on TV and promote whatever future he sees for himself,” the person said.