On Monday night, struggling visibly with his coronavirus infection, Donald Trump bragged that he had triumphed over the virus. “I knew there’s danger to it, but I had to do it,” Trump declared in a video. “I stood out front. I led.” But the real story of Trump’s infection is the danger he covertly posed to others. Despite multiple warning signs, he traveled to campaign events and mingled, mask-free, with donors. He knowingly jeopardized the health not just of his contributors, but of every employee who had to accompany him and everyone who had to staff these events. And he did it all for money.
On Wednesday, Trump spoke to reporters as he left the White House for a campaign trip. The video shows early hints of his infection. His voice was lower and more strained than it had been during a similar exchange a few days earlier. His eyes were puffy, and he sounded slightly congested. Nevertheless, he flew to Minneapolis, where he spent an hour talking with donors, including elderly people, at a $200,000-per-couple fundraiser in a suburban dining room.
From there, Trump flew to Duluth, Minnesota, for a rally. On the way, Hope Hicks, an aide who had been physically close to the president for long periods during the week, felt sick. When the plane landed in Duluth, she stayed on board instead of coming out for the rally. Trump, however, came out and bellowed to the crowd. His voice was lower and raspier than when he had left the White House—you can hear the difference in the video—and his lethargy worried some aides. Instead of powering through his usual 90 minutes, he ended his speech at 45.
On the flight back to Washington, Hicks isolated herself, while other aides conferred about her condition. The next morning, she tested positive for the virus. In response, the White House did what health protocols required: It identified aides who had been physically close to her and barred them from a trip, scheduled for that afternoon, to a fundraiser at Trump’s golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey. But one person who had been close to Hicks went ahead with the trip anyway: Trump himself.
According to Bloomberg News, the president was told, before departing for the fundraiser, that Hicks had tested positive. His behavior was consistent with that report. He “steered clear of reporters assembled for the helicopter takeoff, eschewing his normal back-and-forth and cutting an unusually wide path,” said the article, and he “avoided journalists waiting under the wing of Air Force One at Joint Base Andrews and on the flight to New Jersey.” Maybe Trump was trying to protect reporters from catching whatever he had. Or maybe he was just hiding symptoms.
What’s certain is that Trump, facing an expected haul of $5 million, flew to Bedminster. There, he posed for pictures with high-dollar contributors and spoke to an audience of 100 to 200 people, many of them elderly. He also sat and talked indoors, for more than 45 minutes, at a rectangular table with about 20 people who had ponied up $35,000 to $250,000 apiece. At no point did he wear a mask. According to CBS News, “all participants were required to sign a legal waiver, agreeing not to sue if they contract COVID-19.”
Some people who attended the fundraiser say Trump seemed tired. Others disagree. But video recorded shortly after his return shows unmistakable congestion. Sean Conley, the physician to the president, has acknowledged that on the day of the fundraiser, Trump “had a mild cough and some nasal congestion and fatigue.” Conley says these “clinical indications,” along with Hicks’ positive test, led White House doctors to test Trump for the virus.
In a Fox News interview later that evening, Trump told Sean Hannity, “I just went for a test. And we’ll see what happens. I mean, who knows?” But Trump already knew. The test for which he was awaiting results was a PCR test, administered under White House protocols only after a positive result on the customary rapid test. According to the Wall Street Journal, Trump had flunked the rapid test before the interview. Comments from White House officials match that report. Trump’s press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, says “the first positive test he received was after his return” from Bedminster. Conley says doctors “repeated testing” on Thursday afternoon. Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, says the positive result Trump announced early Friday morning was a “confirmatory test.”
Trump didn’t just deceive and endanger his donors. He deceived and endangered Secret Service agents, people who worked at these fundraising events, and his own aides. The Journal reports that he “asked one adviser not to disclose results of their own positive test.” The president’s exact words, according to the Journal’s source, were: “Don’t tell anyone.” That’s consistent with what aides and advisers have said on the record: that despite having been in close contact with Hicks while she was infectious, they learned of her positive test from media reports, not from the White House. At least two of these blindsided advisers, campaign manager Bill Stepien and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, have since tested positive. So has McEnany, who was sent out to brief reporters on Thursday without a mask and without being told that Hicks—with whom she had traveled for the previous two days—had tested positive.
On Thursday night, when Hannity asked about Hicks’ positive test, Trump acted as though he hadn’t known about it before he went to Bedminster. “I just heard about this,” said the president. And on Friday, when McEnany was asked why Trump had gone to the fundraiser despite knowing he’d been in contact with an infected person, she said the trip was “deemed safe by White House operations” because “it was an outdoor event.” But the donors around the table in Bedminster, like those in the dining room in Minneapolis, faced the president indoors. He spoke to them at length, without a mask and without disclosing the risk that he might be infected. He cared no more about them than he did about the people who brought his food. All he cared about was the money.