- US Secret Service veterans were floored by President Donald Trump’s decision to leave Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for a photo op while infected with the coronavirus.
- Trump ventured outside Walter Reed in a mask in an SUV on Sunday along with two Secret Service agents who donned personal protective equipment.
- “I saw that photograph in the paper this morning, and I was shocked,” Bill Pickle, a 26-year-veteran of the US Secret Service, told Business Insider. “As hard as you try to like the president and you want to believe in his policies, his judgment is just so flawed and so selfish.”
- A former Secret Service agent who served for more than two decades told Business Insider they thought the president’s conduct was “reprehensible,” adding that the agents who protect Trump would “follow him over a cliff, no questions asked, but that’s not the point.”
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As President Donald Trump returned to the White House on Monday evening after contracting the novel coronavirus, Secret Service veterans and medical professionals were still reeling over his cavalier attitude toward the health and safety of those around him.
Trump has long downplayed the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic — which has infected more than 7 million Americans and killed more than 210,000 — and eschewed basic safety measures like social distancing and wearing a mask. But the crisis hit a crescendo after he was hospitalized on Friday and, two days later, temporarily left Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in a presidential motorcade to wave at supporters.
Shortly after announing he’d tested positive for the coronavirus, the president was hospitalized after experiencing symptoms including a cough and a fever. He was given supplemental oxygen twice, as well as a corticosteroid the World Health Organization says is typically reserved for patients with “severe” or “critical” cases of COVID-19.
The SUV Trump rode in during his photo op with supporters was bulletproof and airtight to protect against chemical attacks. Seated in the vehicle with him were two Secret Service agents. Both wore personal protective equipment including masks and face shields, while the president wore a mask.
The backlash came almost immediately, as current and former Secret Service agents and medical professionals questioned why the president put those protecting him at risk by venturing out of the hospital while still infected with a virus that’s killed hundreds of thousands of Americans.
“I have to tell you, I saw that photograph in the paper this morning, and I was shocked,” Bill Pickle, a 26-year-veteran of the US Secret Service, told Business Insider. “It’s hard to believe that someone who’s that contagious would get into a vehicle with nothing more than a fabric mask. His hands weren’t even covered.”
“As hard as you try to like the president and you want to believe in his policies, his judgment is just so flawed and so selfish,” Pickle added.
“He’s not even pretending to care now,” one current agent told The Washington Post. “Where are the adults?” a former agent told the outlet.
The Post cited multiple sources as saying Trump decided to do the drive-by outside Walter Reed after his chief of staff, Mark Meadows, painted a more dire picture of the president’s health than his medical team had. The move is said to have infuriated Trump, who loathes being seen as weak or ineffective.
Matt Chandler, who served as a deputy chief of staff at the Department of Homeland Security during the Obama administration, told Business Insider that Trump’s decision was a “callous political calculation that put the Secret Service personnel in his vehicle at unnecessary risk.”
“This is a no-win situation for his detail,” he added. “They will do the job even if they advise against certain movements or events. But with the entire debacle widely panned, what did he gain beyond undercutting the trust and safety of those who have the critical responsibility of keeping him and his family safe?”
A former Secret Service agent who served for more than two decades told Business Insider they thought the president’s conduct was “reprehensible.”
The former agent, who requested anonymity to candidly discuss Trump’s actions, added that Secret Service members assigned to protect Trump would “follow him over a cliff, no questions asked, but that’s not the point.”
“As commander in chief, knowing how deadly this disease is, how does he treat these agents so cavalierly?” the former agent said. “It’s unconscionable.”
“The frustration with how we’re treated when it comes to decisions on this illness goes back before this,” a current agent who requested anonymity told CNN. “We’re not disposable.”
Asked what he would have done if he were in the shoes of the Secret Service agents who rode with Trump, Pickle didn’t hesitate. “I would have done the same thing they did,” he said. “They aren’t there to question the president. When the president says, ‘I’m going to do something,’ it’s like the military. You may know you’re going to charge up the hill and get killed. But when you’re given the order to do it, you do it. These agents are steadfast and loyal.”
“That’s why they probably never even second-guessed the order in their mind,” he added. “I’m sure all the things that enter any normal person’s brain in this pandemic would go through the brains of Trump’s agents. They’re thinking about this. But that doesn’t matter when you’re given your orders.”
Another Secret Service veteran agreed with that assessment, telling CNN, “You can’t say no.”
Trump’s conduct stood in sharp contrast to that of the first lady, Melania Trump, who also tested positive for the coronavirus but is said to have refused to leave the White House to visit the president at Walter Reed for fear of infecting Secret Service agents in her detail.
“She has COVID,” an unnamed White House official told NBC News. “That would expose the agents who would drive her there and the medical staff who would walk her up to him.”
Perhaps the sharpest early criticism the president drew came from Dr. James Phillips, an attending physician at Walter Reed.
“Every single person in the vehicle during that completely unnecessary Presidential ‘drive-by’ just now has to be quarantined for 14 days,” he tweeted. “They might get sick. They may die. For political theater. Commanded by Trump to put their lives at risk for theater. This is insanity.”
Trump, for his part, was discharged from the hospital on Monday evening, even though his primary-care physician said he was still infectious and wouldn’t be “out of the woods” for another week.
“I feel good,” Trump said after he landed at the White House on Marine One. He subsequently took off his mask and entered the Blue Room of the presidential mansion, where aides were gathered.
As of Monday, more than two dozen people in Trump’s inner circle as well as campaign officials, White House staffers, lawmakers, debate staff, and reporters have tested positive for the virus. Many of them attended a Rose Garden reception last week for Trump’s new Supreme Court nominee, Judge Amy Coney Barrett. There was little social distancing, and few people wore masks, leading to speculation the scene may have been a so-called superspreader event.
On Monday morning, Trump’s press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, announced she had received a COVID-19 diagnosis. She briefed White House reporters on Friday and Saturday without wearing a mask, even though the public knew by then that Trump, his advisor Hope Hicks, and several others around him had tested positive.
As the coronavirus continues spreading through the West Wing, The New York Times reported on Monday evening that the White House had elected not to trace the contacts of guests and staffers who attended the Rose Garden reception.
A White House spokesman, Judd Deere, told the outlet that the White House medical unit was leading a “robust contact-tracing program” in coordination with an epidemiologist from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Deere did not name the scientist, and the CDC referred questions to the White House. Two senior scientists at the agency told The Times they were unaware of any such role in the White House.