Donald Trump and his former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows are peddling a new story about the ex-president’s coronavirus infection. Their first story was that Trump didn’t test positive until Oct. 1, 2020, two days after he debated Joe Biden. Then Meadows admitted in his new book, The Chief’s Chief, that Trump actually tested positive on Sept. 26, three days before the debate. That admission was problematic, since Trump never informed Biden—or hundreds of other unwitting people who interacted closely with the maskless president in the intervening five days—about the test result. So now Trump and Meadows have concocted yet another story: The Sept. 26 result was a “false positive.”
The new story, like other stories Trump and Meadows have told about COVID, is a lie.
Meadows’ account is, to put it politely, evolving. On Wednesday, through a spokesman, he said of the Sept. 26 test: “The book is quite clearly referring to a ‘false positive’ rapid test the president received.” The spokesman added: “After the initial positive, [Trump] received multiple confirmatory tests that came back negative.” On Thursday, Meadows told Newsmax: “If you actually read the book, the context of it, that story outlined a false positive.” He said Trump “had two other tests after [the positive test] that showed that he didn’t have COVID during the debate.” On Friday, in an interview with Real America’s Voice, Meadows asserted that Trump “had a false positive test. That’s outlined in the book. And not only did he have another negative test after that, but he had another negative test after the debate.” Trump now claims that these statements by Meadows “confirmed I did not have Covid before or during the debate.”
On the topic of COVID tests, Meadows has a well-established record of deceit. To begin with, he has concealed other positive test results. On Oct. 1, he learned that Hope Hicks, a senior Trump aide, had tested positive. But Meadows didn’t tell staffers who then accompanied Trump on a trip that afternoon. Nor, apparently, did he tell White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, who, despite having traveled with Hicks for the previous two days, was sent out to brief reporters. And when Trump tested positive on Oct. 1, Meadows didn’t disclose it. Not until the morning of Oct. 2, after Trump had tested positive for a third time, did Meadows acknowledge that the third test was “confirmatory.”
Meadows has also lied about the Sept. 26 test. In the book, as quoted by the Guardian, he claims that after getting the positive result, he “instructed everyone in [Trump’s] immediate circle to treat him as if he was positive.” But aides who were around Trump at the time say they got no such instruction and were never told about the positive test. According to the Washington Post, the list of people kept in the dark included then–Vice President Mike Pence. As late as Oct. 4, Kayleigh McEnany was still telling reporters that Trump’s “first positive test” was on Oct. 1. Either she was lying or Meadows had never told her about the positive result on Sept. 26.
Months later, Meadows continued to dissemble. Jonathan Karl of ABC News says that earlier this year, he asked Meadows whether Trump tested positive before the debate. According to Karl, Meadows “flatly denied it.”
The “false positive” story is just another lie. Meadows’ statements about it aren’t even consistent. First he went from acknowledging zero positive pre-debate tests to acknowledging one. Then he asserted “multiple” negative tests. Then he retreated from “multiple” to two. Then he conceded that only one of the two tests was before the debate. At a minimum, that means Trump went to the debate—and never told Biden or the debate organizers anything—at a point when Trump had one positive test and one negative test. (The negative test was also unreliable. We’ll get to that below.)
Furthermore, Meadows’ statements don’t match his book. According to the New York Times, the former chief of staff writes in the book, referring to the debate, that “we’ll probably never know whether President Trump was positive that evening.” When Meadows tells interviewers that the book clearly describes a false positive result, he’s bullshitting.
Nor are his statements consistent with some events at the White House. If Meadows was truly confident that the Sept. 26 test was a false positive, it’s hard to explain why Trump, at a Sept. 28 outdoor presentation to discuss COVID, was positioned at a podium far away from Pence and other speakers. As PBS reporter Yamiche Alcindor points out, this was an extremely unusual arrangement.
So it’s clear that Meadows is lying about what he knew and when he knew it. But is it possible the test was in fact a false positive, even if the White House wasn’t sure of it? There are at least three good reasons to reject that theory. One is that it can’t explain why some people who were with Trump before the debate—but not afterward—later got sick or tested positive. Another reason is that it doesn’t fit the chronology of Trump’s symptoms. According to studies cited by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the median time between exposure to the virus and development of symptoms is four to five days. After that, the median time between onset of symptoms and hospitalization is about three to six days. In the book, Meadows describes COVID-like symptoms in Trump before and after the Sept. 29 debate. Trump was hospitalized on Oct. 2. That timeline fits a positive test on Sept. 26. It’s completely incompatible with an accurate negative test after Sept. 29.
In his Newsmax interview, Meadows failed to explain this discrepancy. Host Rob Schmitt pointed out: “The timing is interesting, though, you have to admit. I mean, was it even a week later that they choppered him to Walter Reed? And the president was very sick.” Meadows groped for an answer, incoherently, before giving up and changing the subject.
Third, even if Trump really did get a negative test after his positive test on Sept. 26, the published accuracy of the test kits in question makes it overwhelmingly likely that the negative result, not the positive result, was bogus—and that the White House should have known this. According to New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman, Meadows’ book says the positive test was done “on the old Abbott machine the White House had been using.” Abbott’s fact sheet about this product, known as ID NOW, informed users that it was “designed to minimize the likelihood of false positive test results.” The company reported a false positive rate of 0.02 percent—1 in 500. One subsequent study of the product found a single false positive; another study found zero. CDC guidelines that were in effect on Sept. 25, 2020, explained that among antigen tests such as ID NOW, “false positive results are unlikely.”*
The CDC guidelines cautioned that “persons who receive a positive antigen test should isolate” and take a different kind of test, known as PCR. Instead, according to Meadows, the White House submitted Trump’s fluid sample to a second antigen test called BinaxNOW. At the time, scientific articles had warned that antigen tests were prone to false negatives. (Subsequent studies confirmed that among asymptomatic people, BinaxNOW yielded false negative rates of 30 percent, 31 percent, 47 percent, and 64 percent.) For this reason, the September 2020 CDC guidelines warned doctors and the public not to rely on negative antigen tests. But that’s what the White House did. There’s no record of Trump taking the recommended PCR test until the night of Oct. 1.
Even by the most generous calculations, it’s far more likely that Trump’s negative results were false than that his positive result was false. Before the debate, the odds were about 150 to 1; even after a second negative test, the odds were still about 50 to 1. Yet Trump and Meadows discounted the positive test and proceeded with the debate, telling no one. This sorry episode illustrates their whole approach to the virus: wishing away unwelcome information, deceiving the public, and covering up bad news. When Trump and Meadows brush off the positive test as fake, they’re not telling you what really happened. They’re showing you why, under their corrupt leadership, so many people died.
Correction, Dec. 8, 2021: This article originally mischaracterized antigen tests. While PCR tests look for viral RNA, antigen tests look for viral proteins—not for antibodies, as the article originally stated.