At the White House this week, President Trump sat less than six feet from New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) in the Oval Office. He invited small-business owners to crowd behind the Resolute Desk for a photo shoot. His vice president toured a medical research center without a face mask in defiance of its policy.
The daily images projected a sense of confidence that life, at least for the nation’s most prominent resident, is returning to a semblance of normalcy amid the coronavirus pandemic — a visual cue to the public that conditions are improving as Trump pushes to restart sectors of the economy.
Yet even as Trump aides have signaled that he could soon begin regular travel, the reality is that the White House has created a picture of security that is propped up by special access to the kind of wide-scale covid-19 testing that most of the nation remains without.
Trump, Vice President Pence and their aides are tested regularly, and all who enter the White House campus to meet with them are required to undergo on-site rapid tests developed by Abbott Laboratories, which provide results within 15 minutes.
“As vice president of the United States, I’m tested for the coronavirus on a regular basis, and everyone who is around me is tested for the coronavirus,” Pence told reporters, amid a public backlash after he visited the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and violated its rules requiring all visitors to wear a mask.
It is a cocoon of safety that does not exist almost anywhere else in the country. Governors and municipal leaders have scrambled for basic supplies; hospitals and elderly care facilities, dealing with the most vulnerable, have cried out for more testing; and workers at grocery stores and manufacturing plants are risking their health to keep open critical businesses.
Even Congress is facing a dilemma with a lack of adequate testing to ensure a safe working environment as the Senate prepares to resume session on Monday. Only senators and staffers who become ill with covid-like symptoms will be eligible for testing, according to the Capitol’s attending physician. Some congressional leaders, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), have worn a face covering while working in the Capitol.
The scenario has illustrated the contradictions at the core of Trump’s push to reopen businesses, schools and other avenues of public life even as the virus has continued to kill thousands of Americans each week: At the White House, normalcy is returning — but only because the president has adequate testing to protect him.
“Is that what the whole country needs to go back to work?” asked Simon Rosenberg, founder of the liberal NDN think tank. “Why does he get things we don’t get? He’s reinforcing a version of, ‘Let them eat cake.’ Trump is saying, ‘I’m an uber-man. I can do whatever I want because I get testing and you little people can get the virus.’ Because they have not set up the testing regime.”
On Capitol Hill, some Democrats have been wary about pushing for increased testing for lawmakers because it would send the wrong message to the public. One congressional official said the White House is the “only place that is happening — they’re living in a dream world.”
This person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private conversations of lawmakers, acknowledged that special precautions should be in place for the president and vice president.
“But they shouldn’t throw it in people’s faces,” the official said. “They should not be bragging that they’re tested constantly and everyone around them is tested constantly. That sends the wrong message when they promised everyone 27 million tests.”
Trump stated in mid-March that any American who wanted a test could get one, and administration officials pledged that 27 million test kits would be available by the end of that month. Instead, just 1 million had been conducted by that date.
As of the end of April, a total of 6.2 million tests had been conducted in the United States, according to the Covid Tracking Project.
Public health experts have said that millions of tests per day could be necessary to safely begin to restart broad sectors of society, with wide-scale testing to identify and contain local outbreaks.
Though Trump said this week that his administration would help boost testing to 5 million per day, Brett Giroir, the administration’s assistant secretary of health, has said that number is virtually impossible and has pledged to increase the number to 8 million per month. The highest single-day total has been just over 314,000.
Trump has falsely stated that the United States has conducted “more tests . . . than every other country combined,” as he asserted at the White House this week. He said South Korean President Moon Jae-in complimented the Trump administration’s testing efforts in a recent phone call.
“So the testing and the masks and all of the things, we’ve solved every problem,” Trump said.
That might be true at the White House, where the mandatory testing program has led to an environment where the president and most of his top aides feel comfortable enough to eschew face masks, even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that everyone wear them.
With Trump pushing to reopen the country, “we’re in this very murky transition point where the signals are quite conflicting about what behavior is sought after,” said J. Stephen Morrison, a global health policy expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “In that sense, what Pence did at the Mayo Clinic was very deliberate as a sign of defiance against the authorities — thumbing his nose at the medical authorities who run that institution and signaling to others watching you don’t have to buy into this.”
This week, Trump convened three events at the White House. Two were in the East Room, with 10 small-business owners and five executives of organizations representing the elderly, and one took place in the Blue Room, where Trump honored citizens, including a mail carrier from Cincinnati, for their work during the pandemic.
Each of the guests had their temperature taken upon entering the White House grounds, then was led to a medical office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building for the coronavirus test, according to several people who attended.
Chairs were placed farther apart to observe social distancing guidelines, but Trump brought the small-business executives into the Oval Office to take photos and he presented certificates to the honorees while standing shoulder-to-shoulder with them in the Blue Room.
“I felt safer going to the White House than anywhere else, even here in western Pennsylvania where we are under quarantine,” said Ali Mills, executive vice president of Plum Contracting, a highway construction company, who participated in Tuesday’s event for small businesses.
Katie Smith Sloan, the chief executive of LeadingAge, a nonprofit association that advocates for the elderly, said she had never been tested before undergoing the Abbott exam at the White House.
“So many of our members can’t get access to testing and to get results in 30 minutes is unheard of around the country,” she said. “There’s such a disparity in terms of access. It’s really a problem.”
During the event in the East Room on Thursday, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) pledged that his state would test every resident and staff at 700 nursing homes across the state.
“Right now, I think it’s perhaps an aspiration, but what we need is a plan,” Smith Sloan said. “There’s only so much to go around.”