Mark Meadows, President Donald Trump’s former chief of staff, has revealed new details about Trump’s coronavirus deceit. It had already been reported that late last year, when Trump got COVID, he withheld information about a positive test result. It was also well documented that Trump asked advisers to conceal their own positive test results; that he knowingly put unwitting people (including older people) at risk by meeting with them, maskless, at close-up indoor events; and that many people who had been with him later became gravely ill or tested positive. But Meadows and at least two other former officials now confirm that Trump initially tested positive for the virus on Sept. 26, 2020. This means that Trump’s deception and his conscious endangerment of others began several days earlier than was previously known.
According to excerpts from Meadows’ new book, The Chief’s Chief—as reported by the Guardian, which broke the story—Meadows got word of the positive test result just as Trump was taking off on Marine Force One from the White House to Joint Base Andrews, where he was scheduled to fly on Air Force One to a rally in Pennsylvania. Meadows writes that the White House physician, Sean Conley, told the chief of staff: “Stop the president from leaving. He just tested positive for COVID.” Meadows says that he couldn’t stop the takeoff but that he relayed this message to Trump a short time later, as Trump was aboard Air Force One. He says he told the president, “I’ve got some bad news. You’ve tested positive for Covid-19.” While Trump was still on the plane, the White House administered a second test. The second test, done with a product called BinaxNOW, came back negative.
Under protocols that were in effect at the time, issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Trump should have immediately quarantined himself. Four employees at the White House residence had tested positive for COVID shortly before he got his result. The CDC’s instructions as of Sept. 25, 2020, specifically warned that anyone in contact with an infected person should “should self-quarantine/isolate” and get tested. The CDC instructions added: “A single negative test does not mean you will remain negative at any time point after that test. Even if you have a negative test, you should still self-isolate for 14 days.” The instructions also said that the warning not to rely on a single negative test applied even “if you do not have COVID-19 symptoms and have not been in close contact with” an infected person.
There were specific reasons to be wary of Trump’s negative result. Trump and Meadows were in a hurry—the flight to Pennsylvania was short—and the BinaxNOW instruction sheet warned that “False negative results can occur if test results are read before 15 minutes.” An article in Nature, published on Sept. 16, 2020, had cautioned that because such speedy antigen tests needed robust virus samples “to produce a positive result … the test might give a false-negative result.” A CDC review would later find that the BinaxNOW test failed to detect COVID infections in nearly two of every three asymptomatic carriers. Meadows also had visual evidence that Trump might be infected: He writes in the book that based on his observations of the president, he suspected Trump had a “slight cold.”
Instead of following the CDC guidelines, Trump used the second test as an excuse to ignore the first one. Meadows reports that the president construed their second phone call, in which Meadows told him about the negative test, as “full permission to press on as if nothing had happened.” It’s not clear whether Meadows warned staffers around Trump about his possible infection: Meadows says he did, but many of them say he didn’t. What’s certain is that Meadows, according to his statements in the book, thought the people around Trump on Sept. 26 should “treat him as if he was positive” that day—yet Meadows chose not to inform the public. The former chief of staff pleads that he “didn’t want to alarm the public.”
The first thing Trump did was land in Pennsylvania and hold his rally as scheduled. Video of the event shows him walking next to aides and Secret Service agents. He ascends the stage, greets the front row of attendees, delivers a long speech, and again approaches the crowd before departing. But this outdoor encounter was far less dangerous than Trump’s behavior indoors. Michael Shear, a New York Times reporter, says that while on board Air Force One that night, “Trump came to the back of AF1 without a mask and talked with reporters for about 10 minutes. I was wearing a mask, but still got COVID, testing positive several days later.”
At the White House, Trump’s positive test, combined with the previous infections of several staffers, should have triggered immediate contact tracing. Meadows was told about the test result barely an hour after Trump had joined scores of guests at indoor and outdoor White House events to celebrate his nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. Photos taken indoors show Trump sitting in a close circle with Barrett’s family and hobnobbing with other guests. Yet the White House, after receiving Trump’s test result, chose not to alert these people. In fact, it excluded the CDC from this decision.
The next day, Sept. 27, Trump spoke at a press conference in the White House briefing room. The video shows him holding forth for more than 35 minutes, in a fairly small enclosed space, while standing about 10 feet away from aides to his right and reporters in front of him. He also spoke at an indoor reception for Gold Star families. Photos and video from that event show Trump sitting next to several guests and speaking at a podium just a few feet from the front row. According to the Washington Post, the guests, “at Trump’s insistence,” refrained from wearing masks.
On Sept. 28, Trump attended two more events, including an update on the nation’s COVID testing strategy, and held a face-to-face conversation with a CEO from about three feet away. He also continued indoor debate preparation with advisers, several of whom later became ill or infected. On Sept. 29, he went to Cleveland to debate Joe Biden, who was unsuspecting and, like every other 77-year-old man at that point, unvaccinated. In addition to Trump’s positive test result, Meadows writes that on Sept. 29, he noticed that “the dark circles under [Trump’s] eyes had deepened,” and as they walked into the debate venue, “I could tell that he was moving more slowly than usual. He walked like he was carrying a little extra weight on his back.” Despite this, according to the Post, “The White House did not reveal the positive test” to the debate’s organizers, nor he take another test despite debate health guidelines.
Trump kept his infection secret until Oct. 2, when his symptoms became undeniable and he got a second positive test. Since then, he has continued to lie about it. In TV interviews in October 2020, he implied that the Gold Star families had infected him on Sept. 27. We now know that Trump, as he delivered that smear, was aware that he had tested positive on Sept. 26. In March 2021, ABC’s Jonathan Karl asked Trump whether, as some sources alleged, “you got an initial positive test even before the debate.” Trump lied again: “No, that’s not true.” On Wednesday, when the Meadows excerpts surfaced, Trump called them “Fake News.” He claimed that “a test revealed that I did not have COVID prior to the debate.” Notably, Trump said nothing about any other test results.
A spokesman for Meadows now claims that after the positive test on Sept. 26, Trump “received multiple confirmatory tests that came back negative.” But when Trump finally disclosed a positive test result on Oct. 2, Meadows himself called it a “confirmatory test,” implying that others had come back positive. It’s hard to know how many times Trump really tested negative or positive, and whether to believe Meadows about any of it. What’s certain is that Meadows, given his responsibilities to the country and his descriptions of Trump’s physical condition at the time, should have worried more about false negatives than false positives.
None of this changes what we already knew about Trump: He lied about his infection, just as he lied about election fraud and everything else. Because of his lies and sabotage, tens of thousands of people who would have been alive today are in their graves. But every time we get new information about the former president from a document dump, an investigative report, or a book by someone who worked for him, it turns out that his recklessness, deceit, and treachery were even worse than we knew. And there’s no reason to think we’re anywhere near the bottom of it.