This is a code red moment for the US government, on multiple levels. The positive Covid-19 diagnosis of President Donald Trump is a worst-case scenario from a national security perspective. It could cripple the US government. But, more immediately, as we await news about potentially other infected personnel, this may already be one of the most dangerous moments the federal government has faced.
First, there is a global message that the White House would not or could not do what is necessary to protect its own staff, and the President. This basic fact adds to an already strong narrative that the White House will not or cannot do what’s necessary to protect Americans by, for example, insisting that all personnel wear masks. The White House’s failure to prevent a deadly virus from coming close to a purposefully unprotected President undercuts any political propaganda about the administration having Covid-19 under control.
Strategically speaking, it weakens any credibility that the US has, in terms of being a competent global leader prepared to confront threats. The perception of a President stricken by Covid-19, perhaps in part because of his own lax protocols, doesn’t inspire confidence that the US is at the forefront of combatting any global challenge, including this pandemic. This is a major downside risk for the US position on the world stage.
Second, there is an immediate operational impact on the functioning of our government — at the highest levels. I lived through H1N1 at the White House. Then-President Barack Obama and his senior staff advised all personnel to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other relevant guidelines and to be as cautious as possible because he cared about our health and because he knew what an outbreak would mean for national security.
Infection can cripple the US government. That’s why the White House and other federal agencies have continuity of operations plans in place in the event that the President is not able to perform his responsibilities. But at this point we just don’t know how many senior White House personnel and cabinet members — not to mention members of Congress — may be infected if POTUS was a “super spreader.”
Right now, the White House is undoubtedly engaging in threat neutralization measures you would expect to see in a bio terror attack, including efforts to contain the outbreak and mitigate its impacts. But, doing so requires that mission critical resources are being diverted to these efforts, something America’s enemies can seek to exploit.
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Efforts to contain this crisis already include quarantining the President and the first lady. But quarantines will likely extend beyond the POTUS and the FLOTUS as contact tracing and more testing is performed. This means that key White House staff (including cabinet officials) and members of Congress who came into contact with infected White House officials may not be able to fully perform their jobs, access classified servers, and more. I can tell you from experience, it is just not possible to fully perform any national security job without coming to the office and performing business as usual. It just cannot happen.
In a statement, the President’s physician said that both Trump and the first lady are “well at this time” and “plan to remain at home within the White House during their convalescence.” Trump perhaps will claim that he will continue his responsibilities during his “convalescence,” but being sick with Covid-19 compromises his ability to perform his duties. Period.
It cannot be stressed enough that the whole world knows that the President and his national security team isn’t operating at full capacity and that the US doesn’t have a full team on deck.
Because of the White House’s track record with the truth, the public has good reason to distrust what it is saying about the situation that the senior team is facing. That just adds to more confusion and panic at a time when we were already confronting enough.
We don’t know when and where Hope Hicks was infected, but we do know this: White House personnel, including the President himself, didn’t engage in basic safety protocols. They didn’t publicly wear masks on a consistent basis. They mocked medical advice, and now unfortunately they may be reaping the consequences. In public, we saw White House personnel like Hope Hicks not wearing a mask at work. If she did, the crisis containment efforts would be intense but much less severe. The scope of potentially exposed personnel is much greater than it would have been if the White House had acted responsibly.
And there are real questions about whether Trump took seriously the fact that he was endangering himself, his family, and countless Americans. In my experience, the White House Chief of Staff, in coordination with the National Security Council Chief of Staff and others, have internal communication protocols in place to alert personnel (starting with the President) about imminent threats to the compound in real time — whether it’s a suspicious package, trespasser, or infection. A failure to alert the President would be a major departure from this standard operating procedure. A failure to alert White House personnel would be the same. It would be tantamount to knowingly exposing mission critical personnel — not to mention so many other Americans — to a potentially fatal threat.
White House staffers knew about Hicks’s diagnosis by Thursday morning before Trump traveled to a fundraiser in Bedminister, New Jersey, the same day. On Thursday night, Trump told Fox News’ Sean Hannity that he was “surprised” to hear about Hicks’s diagnosis. Frankly, it’s implausible that Trump didn’t know about Hicks in real time. But if it’s true, whomever chose to hide reporting this threat (in real time) knowingly endangered his or her colleagues, their families, our national security and more. That adds to the confusion surrounding this news as every American should rightfully question whether the White House chooses not to share accurate information even when there are life and death consequences.
While we wish all affected Americans a speedy recovery, Trump’s irresponsibility has put himself, his family, his staff, the functioning of our government, and millions of Americans at unnecessary risk today and further down the road.