Oct 5, 2020 - Politics & Policy

A West Wing meltdown

President Trump takes ride outside Walter Reed, with Secret Service agents in the sealed Suburban. Photo: Alex Edelman/AFP via Getty Images

White House crises of competence and credibility grew during a botched weekend that left even White House aides dismayed and befuddled.

Many complained bitterly about the leadership of chief of staff Mark Meadows.

After days of internal and external snafus as the virus spread through all levels of the White House, President Trump left his hospital suite just before 5:30 p.m. yesterday, and took an SUV ride outside the Walter Reed gates to wave at the supporters who have lined the road ever since he arrived Friday evening.

  • Trump wore a mask, but the stunt risked exposing the Secret Service agents in the Suburban.
  • Two senior White House staffers said they thought the P.R. stunt was selfish, and compounded a weekend of horrible decisions.
  • White House spokesman Judd Deere said: "Appropriate precautions were taken in the execution of this movement to protect the President and all those supporting it, including PPE. The movement was cleared by the medical team as safe to do."

Frustration and anxiety built among White House staffers, who say they went days with no internal communication from Meadows about protocols and procedures — including whether they should show up to work — as COVID tore through the West Wing.

  • By contrast, the first lady’s chief of staff, Stephanie Grisham, emailed her staff on Saturday advising them to work from home and reminding them of CDC guidance.
  • And the vice president’s chief, Marc Short, emailed his senior staff at 3 a.m. Friday with an update on the president’s situation and urged them to work from home. Short also had a conference call with his staff on Saturday to take questions and explain the protocol and situation.

A senior White House official said it was "ridiculous'" that there had been no proper internal communication from the chief or operations officials since COVID started rapidly infecting their colleagues: "A bunch of us are talking about it and just gonna make the calls on our own."

  • The White House finally emailed staff with guidance at 8:18 last night — about 15 minutes after Axios contacted the press shop for a story about the lack of guidance. A senior official insisted the guidance email was "pre-scheduled."
  • The impersonal email, signed "White House Management Office," mentioned nothing about the new circumstances, and was almost identical to formulaic emails that had gone out to the staff at previous intervals before POTUS and multiple other West Wing officials got sick.

Several staffers told Axios they were furious with Meadows for leaving much of the staff in the dark, at the same time the White House was sending mixed, incomplete and inaccurate messages to the public.

  • West Wing staff were privately circulating an unsparing indictment by Politico’s Tim Alberta, "How Mark Meadows Became the White House’s Unreliable Source."

A senior White House official defended the chief: "Mark is extraordinarily accessible and caring for his staff. White House employees know well what to do in the event of exposure to a positive case, and best practices regarding mitigation. He has been working hard to assist the President, keep the public informed, and manage the most famous employment complex in the world."

  • Another senior official added: "Peanut gallery criticism like this is absurd and unfair — guidance has long been in place for what to do in the event of a West Wing case, as it has for best practices, testing, teleworking, etc. Meadows has been at Walter Reed with the President managing a million different logistical concerns since Friday. But apologies if anyone had to wait a couple extra hours to receive their updated email on Sunday."

The White House's public communication about the virus has been a debacle of deception and contradictory information.

  • The White House physician, Navy Commander Dr. Sean Conley, admitted at yesterday's briefing that he had painted an overly rosy picture the day before:
I was trying to reflect the upbeat attitude that the team, the president, that his course of illness has had. I didn't want to give any information that might steer the course of illness in another direction. And in doing so, you know, it came off that we're trying to hide something, which wasn't necessarily true.

On Saturday, after Conley's pep talk, Meadows took reporters aside and gave (at first anonymously) a more worrisome snapshot, saying Trump's "vitals over the last 24 hours were very concerning, and the next 48 hours will be critical."

  • Yesterday, another briefer, Dr. Brian Garibaldi, said: "[I]f he continues to look and feel as well as he does today, our hope is that we can plan for a discharge as early as tomorrow."
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