WASHINGTON — As U.S. President Donald Trump urges businesses across the country to reopen and Americans to return to work, he and his administration are projecting a sense of normal after months of disruption because of the coronavirus.
Trump is spending the week meeting with governors and restaurant executives at the White House, while Vice President Mike Pence will travel to Florida to meet with Gov. Ron DeSantis and deliver personal protective equipment to a nursing home.
Not far behind the scenes of the West Wing, however, normalcy is still a ways off. Trump’s own top staffers are increasingly working from home. The White House has started to schedule more meetings by teleconference after two staffers tested positive for Covid-19, including one of the president’s military valets. Aides are now required to wear face masks around the White House, and in-person meetings, if they occur at all, are held in the largest conference rooms possible.
Even the White House mess, where staffers grab lunch and coffee, has shut down and is open only through the take-out window.
The most prominent office in America — with all of the testing, resources and doctors it needs — is still struggling to keep its employees and leaders safe, even as more than a dozen states reopen businesses, restaurants, parks and beaches. The White House’s struggles and its ongoing revision of its health measures offer a window into the myriad challenges that thousands of companies and employers face as they consider bringing back non-essential workers.
“It is impossible to socially distance in the West Wing” — A White House official
The hallways of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, across the street from the White House, are mostly empty, senior administration officials say — except for the vice president. He led meetings in that building last week in a secure room by phone instead of holding court in the situation room, after his press secretary, Katie Miller, tested positive.
“I haven’t seen Mike Pence, and I miss him,” Trump said on Wednesday during a meeting with governors. One White House official said Pence hadn’t been to the West Wing in a little over a week.
The positive diagnoses of Miller and the president’s valet quickly upended the West Wing’s routines, even if some aides worry the precautions do not go far enough. For weeks, the White House appeared to take a relatively casual approach to potential exposure to the coronavirus — with the president opting not to wear a mask even when he met with business leaders and governors, or traveled outside of Washington.
“People do not feel like the White House has initially taken the threat of the coronavirus seriously,” a former senior administration official said. “It is impossible to socially distance in the West Wing.”
“Everything there is often so cavalier, especially when people are taking their cues from the top,” the official added.
The vice president’s staff is expected to return to its “normal routine” this week, one official said, even as Miller continues to self-quarantine at home. She is not expected back within the West Wing for weeks, and another Pence press aide has temporarily taken over her duties. In isolation, as well, is her husband, Stephen Miller, another senior White House aide who has worked for Trump since the 2016 campaign.
Katie Miller’s positive test for the coronavirus worried other White House aides immensely because both she and her husband spent so much time in the West Wing — with Stephen Miller writing all of the president’s speeches and going from office to office to cull material for those remarks. He is also close to other longtime aides, including deputy chief of staff Dan Scavino and members of the president’s family, such as Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner.
As another White House aide put it, Katie Miller’s diagnosis gave the impression of a very “close call.”
Publicly, Trump has not fully acknowledged how close the threat of the coronavirus came into the West Wing and his orbit. He and aides have been so eager to restart the economy, which they see as a key selling point for Trump’s re-election, that they haven’t wanted to do anything to dampen that message, including making the White House appear overly alarmed by Covid-19 within its own walls.
“The country is ready to start safely reopening. The White House cases are a reminder we have to be diligent but you can continue to work safely by following health precautions,” a third White House official said. “While many were concerned the two positive cases in the West Wing would lead to an outbreak of many cases, the White House followed the Guidelines for Reopening American Again and were able to contain the cases with no additional positives. Businesses all over the country are going to have to adjust to new procedures, like the White House has done.”
Although Trump has been a cheerleader for reopening the country and has promised a stronger performance in the third quarter of this year, top economic officials and health experts spent the weekend offering far more measured assessments.
“It’s going to take a while for us to get back,” Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said in a rare interview for CBS’ “60 Minutes.” “The economy will recover. It may take a while. It may take a period — it could stretch through the end of the next year. We really don’t know.”
The president remains focused on the positive, even amid signs that challenges remain.
Trump has branded the latter half of this year as “transitioning to greatness” for the economy, even as the number of Americans unemployed rose to roughly 36 million people within the last week.
“Part of the pivot away from the health concerns to the economy comes from the president’s natural interest,” said one Republican close to the White House. “He is much more comfortable in the economic policy lane than with health care, and (National Economic Council Director) Larry Kudlow has a good amount of juice with the president. I don’t know any of the health people with whom he has that relationship, even if he has grown fond of Dr. Deborah Birx” — the White House coronavirus response coordinator.
Obstacles lie ahead. Many major businesses would like the next relief and stimulus package to absolve them of liability should workers fall sick with Covid-19 after returning to offices and plants. The White House is in favor of this move, administration officials say, yet Congress seems weeks away from passing another large package as Republicans grow wary of the trillions of dollars already being spent.
The president remains focused on the positive, even amid signs that challenges remain. As he spoke about the promise and his hope for a quick development of a vaccine in the Rose Garden on Friday, Trump was surrounded by his top health officials. They stood behind him stoically, wearing face masks, as he promoted the “opening of America.”
“We’re going to have an amazing year next year,” he said. “We’re going to have a great transition into the fourth quarter,” he said.
Gabby Orr contributed to this report.