President Trump appears to be deliberately putting the lives of Secret Service agents, White House staff and military personnel at risk in order to portray himself as tougher than the coronavirus as part of the final act of his re-election campaign. While he has repeatedly misused the government to prop up his campaign, now it’s not just an affront to government ethics and democracy—it’s putting partisan politics ahead of the health and safety of those around him. That is beyond unethical, it is an abuse of power.
Trump has used the government to improperly and sometimes illegally prop up his campaign all year, from Interior Department-created propaganda to the US Postal Service undermining voting by mail to federal law enforcement officials attacking peaceful racial justice protesters to clear the way for Trump’s photo op. But what we’ve seen over the past week has taken the abuses to a whole new level.
After learning that Hope Hicks tested positive for the coronavirus, and that he had likely been exposed to it, Trump went to a fundraiser at his Bedminster, NJ golf course, mingling with hundreds of donors indoors. Nevermind that this all took place at his business, which his campaign paid to use. Instead of quarantining and awaiting test results as he should have done, he put countless lives at risk to make money for his campaign and business.
Unfortunately, this episode was not the first time the Trump family has chosen profiteering at Bedminster over public health: His daughter and son-in-law reportedly visited the property eleven times this spring—violating travel restrictions to do so. Secret Service agents sign up to put their life on the line for threats to the First Family, not threats from it.
After Trump was diagnosed with the virus, and medevaced to Walter Reed Hospital, he engaged in photo ops and recorded a video that was blasted out by his campaign in fundraising appeals, putting at risk the staffers who orchestrated the video and photo ops, seemingly in order to promote his reelection. He then had Secret Service agents drive him in a sealed car so he could visit a rally of his political supporters while still highly contagious, apparently deliberately putting Secret Service agents in harm’s way again.
To the surprise of medical experts, Trump then returned to the White House, potentially endangering those who work there, and promptly began filming videos that appeared designed to show his strength. After landing at the White House, Trump took off his mask, putting those who work at the White House—from cooks to butlers to janitors—in further danger. His campaign immediately sent out fundraising emails about his triumphant return from the hospital.
“Trump has used the government to improperly and sometimes illegally prop up his campaign all year.”
President Trump and his administration have constantly and consistently ignored public health guidelines in an effort to portray the president as somehow “tougher” than his opponent. This extends to his White House staff, many of whom have now been diagnosed with the virus themselves, some of whom have ignored their own possible exposure and have since exposed the White House press corps. The recent conduct of White House officials has taken the pattern of abusing the government—and its employees—for the president’s political gain to terrifying new heights.
President Trump has consistently argued that a major success of his presidency has been the number of judges, particularly Supreme Court justices, that he has put on the bench. Saturday’s Rose Garden announcement of the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court was a public celebration of this success, which appeared aimed to spur greater enthusiasm about his reelection effort. It was also another example of how the president’s political agenda puts people, including government workers, reporters and the surrounding population, at risk. A large event, with people in close proximity, not wearing masks, not only was a show to fire up his base on judicial issues but a message to America that the coronavirus would not hold back his presidency—all intended to help his campaign.
Now, that Rose Garden announcement and the accompanying indoor reception are viewed as a likely superspreader event. In a city of 700,000 that in the beginning of October was averaging 30-40 new cases per day, 34 people connected to the White House have tested positive in recent days according to a FEMA memo. The names we know are just the ones politically connected to him. The White House has so far refused to release how many Secret Service agents and White House staff, political and non-political, have tested positive for the coronavirus. And of course, the real danger from superspreader events is not just to the people who attend but to all the people they come into contact with afterwards. And we know the White House has not been doing contact tracing or reaching out to people who may be infected, a group that may well include any government staff or members of the press who have recently been at the White House.
President Trump has co-opted the American government for his personal and political gain. At first, he created an ethical crisis in doing so. Now his abuse of power may have created a public health crisis in the process.