Trump claimed he got COVID-19 from Gold Star event; new book says was already sick by then

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  • Donald Trump
    Donald Trump
    45th President of the United States
  • Mark Meadows
    American politician
U.S. President Donald Trump removes his mask upon return to the White House from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on October 5, 2020 in Washington, DC. Trump spent three days hospitalized for coronavirus.
U.S. President Donald Trump removes his mask upon return to the White House from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on October 5, 2020 in Washington, DC. Trump spent three days hospitalized for coronavirus.

Remember when President Donald Trump publicly suggested last year that he caught COVID-19 during a ceremony to honor fallen soldiers?

An upcoming book by his former chief of staff Mark Meadows reveals that Trump actually tested positive one day before the event during which he mingled with Gold Star families.

Trump's positive result came on Sept. 26, 2020 – the same day as a White House gathering celebrating the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S. Supreme Court, which was later considered a likely "superspreader" event.

Meadows writes that Trump had just boarded Marine One en route to a campaign rally in Pennsylvania when the White House learned of the positive test. A second, newer test returned a negative result, according to Meadows.

Trump went on "as if nothing had happened," according to Meadows, after getting the negative result.

White House chief of staff Mark Meadows speaks on a phone on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, on Oct. 30, 2020.
White House chief of staff Mark Meadows speaks on a phone on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, on Oct. 30, 2020.

Trump has dismissed the report as "fake news."

It was during an Oct. 8, 2020, interview with Fox Business that Trump implied he caught the virus during the annual veterans event, which was held indoors at the White House on Sept. 27, 2020. According to those who were in attendance, about 25 families were involved, and they were required to take a rapid COVID-19 test before entering.

“I can’t back up and say: ‘Give me room. I want room. Give me 12 feet. Stay 12 feet away when you talk,’” Trump said. The military family members had “come within an inch of my face, sometimes. ”, he added. “They want to hug me, and they want to kiss me. And they do. And, frankly, I’m not telling them to back up. I’m not doing it.”

Based on how COVID-19 incubates and the amount of time it takes to develop symptoms, infectious disease specialists familiar told USA TODAY last year that it was more likely Trump had contracted the virus earlier.

They said they could not pinpoint “patient zero” of the White House outbreak without access to more robust government tracing and molecular typing to identify matching virus samples. Further complicating matters was the administration’s refusal to disclose the date of Trump’s last negative test.

Epidemiologists told USA TODAY at the time that Trump likely was in the early stages of COVID-19 days before hosting a series of events leading up to the ceremony for the Gold Star families.

Meadows' upcoming book indiciates this indeed was the case.

Aside from the president and first lady, the only others from the Gold Star event known to have tested positive at the time were Coast Guard Adm. Charles Ray and press secretary Kayleigh McEnany.

After months of downplaying the disease’s dangers, Trump announced on Oct. 2, 2020, that he had contracted the novel coronavirus. Dozens more people tied to the White House tested positive afterward, including the first lady, senior adviser Hope Hicks and McEnany.

USA TODAY at the time found that some of those individuals people came in dangerously close contact with at least 120 others in the days around the Supreme Court event. Many then scattered across the country and continued to go about their daily lives, traveling, attending campaign rallies and fundraisers, going to the gym and leading religious sermons.

It can take up to 14 days for someone infected with COVID-19 to fully develop symptoms, but about half begin feeling ill within a week, and by day 10, it’s 90%. On average, a person can begin to spread COVID two days before they’re symptomatic – the critical 48 hours on which the White House is focusing.

But health experts note that it’s complicated to estimate when exactly a patient becomes contagious because early symptoms can be so subtle.

“With the president’s schedule and behavior, it will be very hard to identify exactly when he got infected,” said Amesh Adalja, a medical doctor and senior scholar for the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, referring to both the veterans ceremony and the SCOTUS celebration. “If you’re going to have events like this, you’re going to get cases. … This is something you would expect to happen. It was only a matter of time.”

The veterans ceremony came just one day after the Rose Garden ceremony.

Many did not wear masks or social-distance. Some were photographed shaking hands, hugging and kissing, including at indoor receptions affiliated with the outdoor event.

President Donald Trump announces his US Supreme Court nominee, Judge Amy Coney Barrett (R), in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, DC on Sept.26, 2020.
President Donald Trump announces his US Supreme Court nominee, Judge Amy Coney Barrett (R), in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, DC on Sept.26, 2020.

Ray, the admiral who confirmed he had COVID-19 on Oct. 5, and McEnany were the only other people beyond the Trumps to attend the Gold Star event and catch the virus.

Meanwhile, among those at the Barrett nomination ceremony, many went on to test positive for the coronavirus. That includes Barrett supporters, like Notre Dame president Rev. John Jenkins, who has no official ties to the White House and did not attend the Gold Star event.

Experts also point to the size and nature of both events as natural spreaders for an outbreak that could have been spawned even earlier.

Gold Star event described as 'heartwarming'

The president's comments about the Gold Star event drew ire at the time from Democrats in Congress and some military supporters, who cited his disrespect for the troops and lackluster response to the deadly pandemic. But military families who attended the event themselves told USA TODAY last year that they felt safe at the ceremony and were not bothered by the president’s remarks.

Then-White House spokeswoman Alyssa Farah tried to walk back Trump’s comments about the Gold Star ceremony, telling reporters at the time, “We by no means are blaming anyone who was present, and we did take a lot of precautions for that event so based on contact tracing and the data we have, we don't think it arose from that event."

She said the president’s point was that “in the time frame that he was potentially exposed, there were a number of different venues that he'd been at and individuals he'd interacted with that it could have come from.”

Several Democrats in Congress took to social media and issued statements lambasting Trump for his remarks, demanding an apology.

“President Trump seems to think it’s okay to try and shift the blame and scapegoat others for his own failures,” U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., (D-Rhode Island), the ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, said in a statement. “Instead of casting aspersions on the families of the fallen for infecting him, President Trump should be transparent about his own actions, who he met with and when, and release detailed medical information including a timeline and do some real contact tracing to help stop the spread.”

Others also condemned Trump for his comments – and for allowing the White House outbreak to metastasize.

“For Donald Trump to continue to insult Gold Star Families and blame them for spreading a deadly pandemic that he’s actually the one spreading is beyond shameful,” said U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., (D-Illinois), who is a retired Army National Guard lieutenant colonel.

President Donald J. Trump and First Lady Melania Trump join guests in singing “America the Beautiful” during a reception in honor of Gold Star Families Sunday, Sept. 27, 2020, in the East Room of the White House.
President Donald J. Trump and First Lady Melania Trump join guests in singing “America the Beautiful” during a reception in honor of Gold Star Families Sunday, Sept. 27, 2020, in the East Room of the White House.

Multiple people who attended the veterans ceremony told USA TODAY they felt comfortable with the health precautions taken. After being tested on arrival, families said they were kept isolated until they received their test results. They also continued to wear masks during small group tours of the White House.

Families said they were given the option of wearing masks for the rest of the event and could choose whether to mingle with other guests or be taken to a private room.

Britt Harris, whose husband, Army Spc. Christopher Harris, was killed in 2017 in Afghanistan, said she and her mother-in-law opted to spend time in a private room because they were there with Harris’ 2-year-old daughter.

They rejoined the other families and officials later that evening for a ceremony that included speeches from the president and Gold Star father Steven G. Xiarhos as well as lighting candles for each of the 25 service members being honored. Harris said she didn’t expect her husband’s name to be one of two highlighted in the president’s speech.

“It was a big deal to our family,” she said. “It was really special to have him talk about Chris.”

She said her mother-in-law tested negative for COVID-19 after the event. Harris did not get tested but quarantined with her daughter.

Texas resident Ruth Holler, whose son Lance Cpl. Luke Holler died in 2006 in Iraq, said her experience was “heartwarming” and “the trip of a lifetime.” Holler and one of her daughters told USA TODAY the seven members of their family who attended the event have not been tested, but none are showing symptoms.

Hank Cramer, whose father, Capt. Harry G. Cramer, was killed in Vietnam in 1957, also said he felt safe throughout the evening. Cramer said the president spent several minutes asking about his father’s service. He and other attendees said they stood 6 feet away from the president and did not shake hands.

“I think he was probably speaking realistically that he might have caught the virus in any public meeting that he’s been at in the last few weeks,” Cramer said. “And I appreciate the fact that he did not shy away from us. That he came and spent the evening with us and was willing to talk with us.”

Cramer, who lives in Washington state, said he learned the president had COVID-19 from the news. That day, Cramer called a clinic in his small town and asked if he and his wife could be tested. The receptionist asked if they were showing symptoms and, when he said they were not, explained that the office only offered testing only to those who were ill.

“I said, ‘Well I’m asking to get tested because I was at the White House with the president of the United States last Sunday, and he has COVID,’ and there was a silence at the end of the phone,” Cramer said. “They said, ‘Well in that case, come on down.’”

He said he and his wife’s tests came back negative.

Virus infiltrated White House by mid-September

A USA TODAY review of timelines and travel schedules for many of the officials now confirmed ill shows the virus had infiltrated the White House much earlier than the president let on in his Fox Business interview.

Trump confirmed in a briefing with reporters at the White House on Sept. 16 that at least one case had emerged within the administration. At the time, the White House would not confirm whom he meant, and it remains unclear whether he was referring to Crede or another staffer entirely.

“It was one person. That’s – I mean, so not too much – not a person that I was associated with,” Trump said at the time.

Following the disclosure, Trump and his administration continued to flout public health guidelines by organizing large public gatherings, with little regard for face coverings and proper social distancing. In the last two weeks of September, the president participated in at least 11 rallies and fundraisers.

President Trump and Vice President Pence arrive for a campaign rally at Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport on Sept. 25, 2020 in Newport News, Va.
President Trump and Vice President Pence arrive for a campaign rally at Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport on Sept. 25, 2020 in Newport News, Va.

The very next day, Trump spoke without a mask at the White House Conference on American History, while first lady Melania Trump visited a firehouse in Manchester, New Hampshire, to discuss substance abuse.

President Trump then boarded planes for flew to events in Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

The president and U.S. Attorney General William Barr met with the attorneys general in various states about protecting consumers from social media abuse, and he hosted a Latinos for Trump roundtable at the Trump National Doral Miami on Sept. 25 before more than 150 people, many of them without masks. He traveled to a black economic empowerment event near Atlanta on Sept. 25, where he elbow-bumped NFL legend Herschel Walker and mingled with other supporters.

The Sept. 18 Trump rally in Minnesota alone has been associated with nine COVID-19 cases, including two hospitalizations, according to MPR News.

Even after the outbreak snowballed and Trump himself tested positive, members of the White House have continued to skirt basic recommendations about such events, relying instead upon a strategy of testing those who are to have contact with the president.

They stopped at faith summits, campaign rallies and other political fundraisers, where they came into contact with thousands. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., (R-Wisconsin), a vocal critic of mask mandates, attended a fundraiser after he had taken a test for the virus but before the results came back positive.

McEnany continued to interact with members of the media without a mask before she tested positive. And at least six faith leaders from the Rose Garden SCOTUS Supreme Court event gave in-person sermons the following Sunday – after Trump announced he had the coronavirus.

Contributing: Kyle Bagentose and Nicholas Wu contributed to this story

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump claimed Gold Star families gave him COVID. He was already sick.

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