A White House Long in Denial Confronts Reality

WASHINGTON — As America locked down this spring during the worst pandemic in a century, inside the Trump White House there was the usual defiance.

The tight quarters of the West Wing were packed and busy. Almost no one wore masks. The rare officials who did, like Matthew Pottinger, the deputy national security adviser, were ridiculed by colleagues as alarmist.

President Trump at times told staff wearing masks in meetings to “get that thing off,” an administration official said. Everyone knew that Mr. Trump viewed masks as a sign of weakness, officials said, and that his message was clear. “You were looked down upon when you would walk by with a mask,” said Olivia Troye, a top aide on the coronavirus task force who resigned in August and has endorsed former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.

In public, some of the president’s favorite targets were mask-wearing White House correspondents. “Would you take it off, I can hardly hear you,” Mr. Trump told Jeff Mason of Reuters in May, then mocked Mr. Mason for wanting “to be politically correct” when he refused.

This past week, a White House long in denial confronted reality after Mr. Trump and the first lady both tested positive for the virus, along with Hope Hicks, a top White House aide, and Bill Stepien, the Trump campaign manager, among others. The outcome appeared shocking but also inevitable in a West Wing that assumed that rapid virus tests for everyone who entered each morning were substitutes for other safety measures, like social distancing and wearing masks.

But the outcome was also a byproduct, former aides said, of the recklessness and top-down culture of fear that Mr. Trump created at the White House and throughout his administration. If you wanted to make the boss happy, they said, you left the mask at home.

When the nation went into lockdown in March, Mr. Trump was determined to play down the virus. He talked of reopening as soon as Easter, April 12, pushed states to lift restrictions early and pressured schools, churches and businesses to go back to normal, all in the hope of saving his campaign.

But behind the White House gates, Mr. Trump and his aides relied heavily on the daily rapid testing available to them. At times Mr. Trump took numerous rapid tests throughout the day.

Aides were divided on the risks. Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, and Dan Scavino, the White House social media director, were among the least concerned, colleagues said. They viewed themselves as protected because of the testing available to them and maintained that getting the virus was not a death sentence.

Ms. Hicks, a longtime aide who is one of the president’s closest advisers, was more concerned, colleagues said. She took more precautions than most others and sometimes wore a mask in meetings.

Colleagues said that newcomers to Mr. Trump’s orbit, like Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, never wore a mask in his presence, in what was interpreted by other staff members as an attempt to please the new boss.

As the months progressed, there were so few reported virus cases in the White House — a valet to the president, a top aide to the vice president and Robert C. O’Brien, the national security adviser, all tested positive — that aides to the president grew even less concerned.

By June, the month before Mr. O’Brien tested positive, the White House had already stopped conducting temperature checks for people entering the complex. Only those aides who were interacting directly with the president received daily tests. Masks remained rare sightings.

The attitude was widespread in the administration. At the Justice Department in May, Attorney General William P. Barr told a New York Times Magazine reporter who arrived in a mask for an interview that “I’m not going to infect you,’’ and then sat by as an aide suggested, twice, that the reporter take the mask off. The reporter did.

Even on Friday, only hours after the president had announced at 1 a.m. on Twitter that he and the first lady had tested positive, the White House was trying to project that it was business as usual. “We had a great jobs report this morning,” Mr. Meadows told reporters at the White House. “Unfortunately, that’s not what everybody is focused on this morning.”

Nonetheless, they made every effort to carry on with a nothing-to-see-here-folks mentality.

Mr. Meadows, who had been in close contact with the president in recent days, arrived at work without a mask, and continued to claim that a mask was not necessary because he had tested negative. (Mr. Meadows wore a mask when he accompanied Mr. Trump, also in a mask, to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Friday evening.)

And although more aides wore masks in the West Wing on Friday, masks remained optional at the White House, a spokesman said.

Mr. Meadows also told reporters on Friday that “I fully expect that as this virus continues to go on, other people in the White House will certainly have a positive test result.” So far Mr. Meadows has tested negative.

Late Friday, Kellyanne Conway, a former top presidential adviser who was at the White House in recent days, announced that she had tested positive. Others testing positive who had been at the White House in recent days included Senator Mike Lee, Republican of Utah; Senator Tom Tillis, Republican of North Carolina; Senator Ron Johnson, Republican of Wisconsin; Chris Christie, the former governor of New Jersey; and the Rev. John I. Jenkins, the president of the University of Notre Dame.

On a policy level, the White House for months has been pressuring the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to play down the risk of the virus so the president could forge ahead with his desire to reopen schools, reinvigorate the economy and continue to act as if the country had “rounded the final turn” when it came to the virus.

Kevin Hassett was a top economic adviser to the president in May when he became one of the few to break the unwritten White House rules. In a television interview, he said that he found it “scary to go to work” and that “I think that I’d be a lot safer if I was sitting at home than I would be going to the West Wing.”

Mr. Hassett, who left the administration over the summer, told CNN on Friday that he was criticized at the time for publicly expressing concern.

“When I was in the White House, you know, I got a little bit of a flak for saying, ‘Hey, I understand the risks,’” he said.

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