President Donald Trump socially distanced himself from his own national security adviser on Monday after he tested positive for Covid-19.
Asked about the positive test result for Robert O’Brien, Trump said he hadn't seen his top foreign policy aide recently.
"I haven't seen him lately," the president said on Monday during a brief exchange with reporters on the South Lawn of the White House. "I heard he tested, yeah. I have not seen him."
The line recalled similar language Trump has used in the past when expressing displeasure at senior officials, though there's no indication that O'Brien's job is on the line or that Trump is mad at him.
But the president's remarks come days after a Thursday phone call between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin -- the kind of high-level meeting that would typically demand the national security adviser's close involvement. The White House released a spartan readout of the call that did not list the participants, and administration officials declined to answer questions about whether O'Brien was in the Oval Office at the time.
According to a White House statement, O’Brien “has mild symptoms and has been self-isolating and working from a secure location off site. There is no risk of exposure to the president or the vice president. The work of the National Security Council continues uninterrupted.”
The news of O'Brien's diagnosis caught some NSC staffers by surprise -- one NSC official said he heard about it from the press this morning. Another White House official said it was business as usual at the White House on Monday, with no temperature checks to enter the White House grounds as there used to be earlier in the pandemic.
Trump economic adviser Larry Kudlow told reporters on Monday morning that O’Brien got infected from his daughter, and it's unclear how much in-person contact he’s had recently with Trump. Anyone who is near the president is tested regularly for the disease.
O’Brien, 54, and his deputy Matt Pottinger were early internal advocates of swift action to combat the outbreak. More recently, he has focused on coordinating the administration’s pushback against a rising China — he went to Paris earlier this month to meet with several European counterparts about China and other foreign policy issues, bringing along several conservative journalists. In late June, he traveled to Arizona to deliver a speech comparing Chinese leader Xi Jinping to Josef Stalin.
According to Bloomberg News, which first reported O’Brien’s positive test, he “contracted the virus while taking a few days off from work, spending time with his family” and is currently working from home. A White House official said O’Brien was visiting family late last week, and NSC staffers who interacted with O’Brien are getting tested, although it’s unknown how many. An NSC spokesperson didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
In March, O’Brien and Pottinger took steps to prevent a potential outbreak within the NSC by dividing the council’s front-office support staff in half and running each half from different offices. Pottinger, whose brother is a virologist, has been one of the most vocal proponents of measures like masking and temperature checks among the White House staff.
Although O'Brien lacks the public profile of past Trump national security advisers like John Bolton or H.R. McMaster, his diagnosis brings the virus into the top ranks of the administration for the first time. Previous White House aides to be infected include Katie Miller, Vice President Mike Pence’s top communications aide, and also a personal valet for the president.
Last week, a Marine assigned to Trump’s helicopter squadron tested positive for Covid-19. The cafeteria and another eatery at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building were also closed last week after a cafeteria employee tested positive for the virus.
Kimberly Guilfoyle, the girlfriend of the president’s son Donald Trump Jr., received a positive test result for coronavirus, causing the couple to leave early from Trump’s Mount Rushmore speech during the July 4 holiday weekend.
John Gans, author of “White House Warriors: How the National Security Council Transformed the American Way of War,” said O'Brien has taken "drastic steps" to downgrade the NSC, which would usually be a driving force responding to a pandemic.
"O’Brien’s illness is another reminder how short-sighted that plan was. During a historic pandemic, the government needs all hands on deck," Gans said.
Meridith McGraw contributed to this report.