On the same day President Donald Trump acknowledged contracting the coronavirus, the White House quietly informed a veterans group that there was a COVID-19 risk stemming from a Sept. 27 event honoring the families of fallen U.S. service members, the head of that charitable organization told The Daily Beast.
The White House warning, which came on Oct. 2, is the earliest known outreach to visitors of the complex that there was a risk of coronavirus emerging from the grounds where the president, the first lady, and at least 17 of his aides, according to Politico, have now tested positive for the virus.
The Sept. 27 event to honor Gold Star families came the day after the White House hosted a celebration for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett that appears to have been an early source of the White House outbreak, though West Wing officials have quietly disputed that linkage. It is unclear to the head of the veterans charity—the Greatest Generations Foundation—which participant’s potential positive coronavirus test sparked the warning.
“The White House has been in daily contact with TGGF for contact-tracing purposes after alerting us on 10/2 of a possible COVID-positive person at the event so we could know there was a potential our attendees were exposed,” said the Greatest Generations Foundation’s President and CEO Timothy Davis.
Pictures from the Gold Star family event, which Trump attended, show minimal mask wearing and social distancing. It took place indoors, though attendees said they were tested prior to attending. A Republican close to the White House also told The Daily Beast that others present at the event received outreach from a White House office—though not the medical office—late last week urging them to get coronavirus tests. The source described a chaotic scene in the White House as it tries to manage the internal outbreak.
“The communication breakdown during this is even worse than usual,” this source said. “Different departments and offices are not talking or communicating appropriately, people are doing different things, and officials are having trouble getting on the same page. The East Wing and the West Wing are dealing with this totally differently. It’s just a mess.”
Davis said the White House’s Office of Public Liaison notified him and has remained in touch. The White House Medical Unit has taken the lead on contact tracing but the public liaison office’s communication with individuals from the Gold Star family event underscores the extent to which multiple officials in the White House were concerned about visitors’ exposure.
The White House has repeatedly said that it only contacts individuals who may have come within six feet of a White House personnel member in the 48 hours preceding their positive test. The outreach to Davis raises questions about whether there were any COVID-positive individuals in attendance at the event. Trump’s top aide, Hope Hicks, tested positive September 30, three days after the gathering and pictures from the ceremony do not show her in the audience.
Publicly, officials were projecting calm. On the same day that the White House reached out to Davis, officials were still portraying the president’s infection with the disease as isolated and containable. One official told The Daily Beast last week that the White House was operating “business as usual” and that no update or warning had been sent out to personnel.
“The White House has a robust contact tracing process led by the medical unit with CDC guidance. The White House also extends a variety of communications to its guests and organizations who work with us on a variety of issues and events,” said Brian Morgenstern, a White House spokesman. “President Trump and his staff take risk mitigation seriously. We also know it is very important to reopen our country and for the president to continue working for the American people in a safe way.”
The Gold Star families event was attended by the vice commandant of the Coast Guard, Adm. Charles W. Ray. The Pentagon announced on Tuesday that Ray tested positive for coronavirus, prompting “self-quarantining” from several members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other senior military leaders Ray met with last week. Also at the event were Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who has tested negative, and Army Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The Pentagon said it had no new positive results from coronavirus tests to announce Wednesday. Neither the Pentagon nor the Coast Guard would say if the White House notified Ray, Esper, Milley or any other senior military official of their potential exposure from the Sept. 27 event.
One Gold Star son who attended the Sept. 27 event, Daniel Bradley of California, said that he had not been notified by the White House about a COVID risk. He got tested on his own afterwards, “out of an abundance of caution.” The results came back negative, Bradley said.
Bradley said his White House attendance was facilitated by the Greatest Generations Foundation, which helps World War II and Vietnam veterans visit their old battlefields. Davis said the foundation arranged to send eight Gold Star relatives to the Sept. 27 event, aged 30 to 75 years, all of whom were tested before the event. Davis has been in daily contact with all attendees, most recently on Wednesday morning, and said all have tested negative.
While the White House was quietly reaching out to Davis about potential COVID exposure, its efforts at contact tracing have been far less comprehensive elsewhere.
The owner of La Chaumiere, an upscale restaurant in Georgetown, confirmed to The Daily Beast that Amy Coney Barrett and her family dined there in a private room after appearing at the White House introduction ceremony. But as of Wednesday morning, he said, “No contact tracer or anyone from the White House has reached out to me.” None of the staff had shown symptoms of illness.
Likewise, it is unclear if the White House notified Adm. Ray or anyone else in attendance at the Sept. 27 event about the coronavirus risk stemming from it. Neither the Coast Guard nor the Pentagon immediately responded to a Daily Beast inquiry. Prior to Davis coming forward to say he’d been in touch with White House officials, the Washington Post, citing sources familiar with the event planning, reported that the White House “did not contact most of the families, if any.” The Post cited Morgenstern to explain that the White House didn’t contact the families “because all attendees tested negative Sept. 27 and no positive tests were recorded in the first 48 hours afterward.”
The details of how the White House Medical Unit is conducting its contact tracing program are murky. While senior officials have laid out the parameters for who they choose to get in touch with, they have not said publicly who they believe to be at risk for exposure. They have also not indicated how many White House personnel members are being traced. The White House has also rebuffed offers by the Centers for Disease Control and the D.C. mayor’s office to help coordinate the tracing program.
“As a veterans organization, we are bipartisan and stay out of politics,” said Davis. “All Gold Star families that attended the event at the White House are doing great and have no symptoms of COVID.”