“People Are Livid”: White House Reporters Fume Over Team Trump’s “Reckless” COVID Response

Over the past several days, the COVID-19 crisis at the White House has been a riveting spectacle to behold, albeit a deeply horrifying one. Journalists have kicked into overdrive to chronicle every new twist and turn in the still-metastasizing and oftentimes confusing saga. But Monday’s revelation that Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany had tested positive for the virus hit particularly close to home.

McEnany, who in February proclaimed that under Donald Trump’s leadership, “we will not see diseases like the coronavirus come here,” obviously ran a high risk of exposure given her proximity to Trump and other White House figures who have contracted the potentially deadly disease, such as Hope Hicks. But she said she had still tested negative each day since the outbreak at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue began, including on Sunday, when she briefed the press corps outdoors on the White House driveway from a distance of about 10 feet, as someone who was there estimated, but without a mask.

For White House correspondents, McEnany’s diagnosis was the straw that broke the camel’s straining, buckling back. “People are livid,” one told me. “There are a lot of us, like dozens of reporters, who feel it’s unsafe to be doing it the way it’s being done. Literally half the White House has the virus they have downplayed for seven months. I mean, it’s just unnecessarily risking serious illness or death, for no reason.” Another said, “People are very pissed. Why didn’t Kayleigh quarantine after being exposed to Hope? Reporters have families and have been doing the right thing, wearing masks. The White House staff are relentlessly reckless.” As Ben Tracy of CBS News put it on Twitter, “I felt safer reporting in North Korea than I currently do reporting at The White House. This is just crazy.” 

Throughout the pandemic, White House reporters have been exasperated by what they see as a lax attitude from administration officials. As far back as March, when the pandemic was first exploding in New York and other large cities, concerns about safety in the briefing room itself were validated when a White House journalist contracted a suspected case of COVID. The White House Correspondents’ Association has been able to effectuate measures like reduced, physically distant seating and an expanded buffer zone between event attendees and members of the traveling press pool, but such vigilance only goes so far.

A third White House correspondent pointed out that reporters who accompanied Trump on his western campaign swing a few weeks ago found themselves covering two rallies that they were not initially aware would be indoors. They found out that the president’s rally in Henderson, Nevada, was to be held indoors on the afternoon of the event. Then in Phoenix, when they walked into what they thought would be a small roundtable with Trump, they found themselves in an environment with 1,500 people and few masks in sight. During indoor briefings, the White House has been known to invite guests who do not wear masks. On Air Force One, White House staff and even Secret Service members generally haven’t worn masks, nor have Trump or McEnany when they’ve come back to speak with the journalists on board. Inside the close quarters of the West Wing and elsewhere on White House grounds, masked reporters have often found themselves interacting with non-masked sources and officials, sometimes for extended durations. “The White House and the campaign have taken an extraordinarily cavalier attitude toward the safety of the press,” my source said.

“The President takes the health and safety of himself and everyone who works in support of him and the American people very seriously,” Deputy Press Secretary Judd Deere told me. “White House Operations collaborates with the Physician to the President and the White House Military Office to ensure all plans and procedures incorporate current CDC guidance and best practices for limiting COVID-19 exposure to the greatest extent possible both on complex and when the President is traveling.”

In private conversations with the White House, the Correspondents’ Association has pushed for more mask-wearing among government officials. Those discussions took on a new urgency in recent days as three White House reporters, including the New York Times’s Michael Shear, tested positive. But association members want to see more public pressure applied, and they were disappointed with the timidity of the association’s latest statement on Monday: “We wish Kayleigh, the president, and everyone else struggling with the virus a swift recovery. As of this moment we are not aware of additional cases among White House journalists, though we know some are awaiting test results. We strongly encourage our members to continue following CDC guidance on mask-wearing and distancing—especially when at the White House—and urge journalists to seek testing if they were potentially exposed.”

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