WASHINGTON — “Covid, Covid. Covid, Covid, Covid, Covid,” President Trump groused at a rally in North Carolina on Saturday, expressing dismay that the deadly coronavirus pandemic had come to dominate the final days of his struggling re-election campaign. He made up a scenario: “A plane goes down, 500 people dead, they don’t talk about it. ‘Covid, Covid, Covid, Covid.’”
But just seven hours later, the White House made its own Covid headlines when officials acknowledged that another coronavirus outbreak had struck the White House, infecting Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff and four other top aides — and raising new questions about the Trump administration’s cavalier approach to the worst health crisis in a century.
“We’re not going to control the pandemic,” Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday morning, essentially offering a verbal shrug in response to any effort to prevent an outbreak in the top echelon of the nation’s leaders. “We are going to control the fact that we get vaccines, therapeutics and other mitigations, because it is a contagious virus — just like the flu.”
Mr. Trump made no reference to the new cases during campaign rallies in New Hampshire and Maine on Sunday. But for voters, the new wave of infections at the White House just over a week before Election Day was a visceral reminder of the president’s dismissive and erratic handling of the virus, even in one of the most secure spaces in the country. And it comes just as the United States suffers its third surge in infections across the nation, with a record number of daily new cases on Friday and a death toll that has risen to almost 225,000.
Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Democratic presidential nominee, said Sunday that the statement by Mr. Meadows was “an acknowledgment of what President Trump’s strategy has clearly been from the beginning of this crisis: to wave the white flag of defeat and hope that by ignoring it, the virus would simply go away. It hasn’t, and it won’t.”
“It’s sadly no surprise then that this virus continues to rage unchecked across the country and even in the White House itself,” said the former vice president, who has sought to make the administration’s handling of the coronavirus the centerpiece of his campaign.
From the beginning, Mr. Trump has downplayed the threat of the virus, initially insisting that it would just “go away” and failing to ramp up testing that might have helped slow its spread. Mr. Trump clashed with his own scientists, pressuring officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to change their restrictive recommendations about how and when to reopen businesses and schools.
The president organized his pandemic response around his political ideology, warring with “blue state” governors while praising the hands-off approach of Republican leaders. And he publicly sided with people frustrated with restrictions and shutdowns, demanding on Twitter that the governor of Michigan, among others, “liberate” her state.
Mr. Trump turned mask wearing and other preventive measures into political loyalty tests, dismissing the critical importance of social distancing and pinning his hopes on Operation Warp Speed, a plan to accelerate development and distribution of a vaccine that has shown promise, but that scientists have insisted was never going to be quick or easy.
The president and his aides have taken the same approach inside the White House. They have declined to follow quarantine guidelines, ignored warnings from doctors, largely refused to wear masks and, in the case of the president, mocked reporters who did as recently as Friday in the Oval Office.
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“The White House has had very loose rules about protecting the workers and leadership,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, the dean of the Brown University School of Public Health. “They’ve had one large outbreak, and it was very clear that they didn’t learn from that outbreak and so these are going to continue.”
The president and vice president have largely stayed in messaging lock step as the pandemic unfolded. Mr. Trump has minimized it from the beginning, and used his own infection and hospitalization as a way of doubling down, telling Americans after his treatment with experimental drugs, “Don’t be afraid of Covid,” and urging them not to “let it dominate your life.” He said during his second debate with Mr. Biden last week that the country was “learning to live” with it.
As the leader of the White House virus task force, Mr. Pence has parroted the president’s rosy outlook, even mimicking Mr. Trump’s aversion to masks by refusing to wear one during a visit to a hospital in April.
Over the past several months, Mr. Pence stood by as the White House sidelined Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease specialist, and Dr. Deborah L. Birx, the task force coordinator, and instead embraced Dr. Scott W. Atlas, a radiologist and senior fellow at Stanford University’s conservative Hoover Institution, who has advocated a largely hands-off approach by the federal government to stopping the pandemic.
Mr. Pence tested negative for the virus on Sunday, and said he would not quarantine after his exposure to infected aides, who include Marc Short, his chief of staff, and Marty Obst, a senior adviser. His spokesman would not say whether Mr. Pence was receiving some of the drugs Mr. Trump was given, including an experimental cocktail of antibodies by the pharmaceutical company Regeneron, as a preventive measure.
In a statement, the White House deemed the vice president “essential” and said he would stick to his campaign schedule. That included an address on Sunday evening to supporters in Kinston, N.C., where Mr. Pence made no reference to the cases that had infiltrated his staff and instead defended the administration’s coronavirus response as the “greatest national mobilization since World War II.”
But several White House aides and officials on his campaign said privately that Mr. Pence should stay off the campaign trail, and instead host virtual events and phone calls to demonstrate that the vice president and his aides were taking the outbreak in their ranks seriously.
Others said that the latest outbreak would be in the news either way, and that deploying Mr. Pence to a state like North Carolina, where campaign aides think the race will come down to fewer than 100,000 votes, was crucial in the final days.
But the decision to continue Mr. Pence’s schedule risked making the outbreak in his ranks a bigger story than if he pulled back from the campaign trail.
Robert C. O’Brien, the president’s national security adviser, defended Mr. Pence’s decision to maintain his campaign schedule, even as he acknowledged that the virus was “ripping through this country.” He cited the C.D.C.’s guidelines that allow essential personnel to continue working.
“Essential workers going out and campaigning and voting are about as essential as things we can do as Americans,” Mr. O’Brien said.
Those guidelines, issued in April and updated in September, were developed to ensure that “people who are helping us keep the lights on and the water running can do their jobs,” said one federal health official who participated in drafting them. And while Mr. Pence has thus far tested negative, health experts denounced his decision to continue traveling to campaign stops around the country.
“The idea that you can just be declared an essential worker without being quarantined undermines the whole concept of quarantine,” said Dr. Tom Frieden, the director of the C.D.C. under President Barack Obama.
On the campaign trail, blaming the news media for covering the virus incessantly has become a stock part of Mr. Trump’s rally performance — a sign he is appealing to voters by leaning into the country’s general virus fatigue. The president has repeatedly said the country is “rounding the corner” in the fight against the virus — even as all evidence is to the contrary.
The president’s assessment stood in stark contrast to more aggressive guidance from Dr. Fauci, who said in an interview Sunday that the country should consider mandating the use of masks — something Mr. Trump has repeatedly refused to consider — because “the universal wearing of masks” is essential to curbing the spread of the deadly virus.
“It would be optimal if this could be accomplished without resorting to a mask mandate,” Dr. Fauci said, repeating comments he first made late last week. “However, if the situation continues to deteriorate regarding numbers of cases, hospitalizations and likely deaths while many people still refuse to wear masks, we should seriously consider mask mandates.”
The outbreak in the vice president’s office is the third to strike the White House, following a small outbreak in May that included Mr. Pence’s spokeswoman and a larger explosion of infection in late September after a Rose Garden ceremony for Judge Amy Coney Barrett, Mr. Trump’s Supreme Court nominee.
The latest one began late last week, when Mr. Obst fell ill. Once that happened, people who had been in contact with him went into quarantine and contact tracing measures were employed, according to a senior administration official. But during that period, two other top aides to Mr. Pence tested positive for the virus. Officials in the vice president’s office did not make it public at the time.
Then on Saturday, both Mr. Short and Zach Bauer, Mr. Pence’s personal aide, tested positive, two senior administration officials said. Two officials familiar with the events said Mr. Short wanted White House doctors to issue a statement about his diagnosis, adding that Mr. Pence had tested negative.
But Mr. Meadows did not want the information becoming public on Saturday, the officials said. He pressed the White House medical office not to release a statement, and urged the vice president’s staff not to publicly reveal the diagnoses, the officials said. Several people said they believed Mr. Meadows was trying to keep the situation from becoming public so close to Election Day. Mr. Meadows has indicated to people that he was doing what the president wanted.
A senior administration official said that Mr. Meadows was not trying to prevent the outbreak from becoming public, but instead that he thought the White House medical office should not issue the statement and wanted the vice president’s office to engage in contact tracing before putting out a statement. After the Rose Garden ceremony last month, the White House made little effort to track the spread of the virus.
Across the White House complex, there was a mixture of anxiety about what the outbreak means for the election, and intense frustration with Mr. Short, who has been among the leaders in the administration in arguing the risks of the virus have been overblown.
Mr. Short has also played down the value of mask wearing, administration officials said. Mr. Short was expected to stay home for at least 10 days.
Representative Tom Cole, Republican of Oklahoma, said he gave the vice president’s office credit for acknowledging that Mr. Short was sick, and took no issue with Mr. Pence being out on the trail.
“I don’t think they should overdramatize this,” Mr. Cole said. “It is near the end of a campaign. I’m sure all these things are weighed carefully by a presidential campaign. I guess you could call it either way, but if I were in a similar situation I’d be doing a similar thing to what Vice President Pence is doing.”
Asked by reporters on Sunday whether Mr. Pence should come off the campaign trail, Mr. Trump said that “you’ll have to ask him” and bragged about the size of the vice president’s rally crowds, saying they had been socially distanced.
The only person in the president’s orbit whose own experience with the virus appeared to have altered his thinking is Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor, who was hospitalized after testing positive and now urges Americans to wear masks and practice social distancing.
“These minor inconveniences can save your life, your neighbors and the economy,” he wrote last week in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal. “Seldom has so little been asked for so much benefit. Yet the message will be broadly heeded only if it is consistently and honestly delivered by the media, religious leaders, sports figures and public servants.
“Those in positions of authority,” he said — without directly mentioning Mr. Trump and Mr. Pence — “have a duty to get the message out.”
Emily Cochrane contributed reporting.