The day before President Donald Trump tested positive for COVID-19, he flew to Minnesota on Air Force One with senior staff, as well as pool reporters, including VOA’s White House bureau chief Steve Herman. The next day Herman traveled to Wilmington to prepare to cover a Joe Biden rally, the only reporter who attempted to switch between the Trump and Biden campaigns this week. He describes the experience following the president’s positive coronavirus test.
At the White House on Wednesday morning, a member of the medical office swabbed my nose to collect a sample for the routine COVID-19 rapid test administered daily to all members of the protective pool of reporters covering the president’s activities.
It was a brief and painless procedure. I had undergone it more than a dozen times in recent months — always with the same “negative” result. That has also been the case for my colleagues on the White House beat, Patsy Widakuswara and Carolyn Presutti, with whom I alternate campaign coverage when it is VOA’s turn in the rotation among radio networks.
As the day’s designated radio pooler for the Minnesota round trip on Air Force One, I was responsible for ensuring that all the networks would have broadcast quality audio whenever the president spoke — from the time we left Joint Base Andrews in Maryland to our post-midnight return on the same military tarmac.
The president’s first stop in Minnesota, known as “the Land of 10,000 Lakes,” was a massive multimillion-dollar estate on the shores of Lake Minnetonka. At a fundraiser at the home of wealthy Republican Party donor Martin Davis, during which the accompanying media waited outside in our vans, Trump mingled with an unannounced number of guests. Thus, we were not able to observe if the participants were wearing masks or engaged in social distancing.
Such recommended precautions were certainly not seen at the president’s next stop in Duluth, where an airport rally was held. Thousands of enthusiastic supporters turned out – crammed in bleachers, on the tarmac and in the hangar. Only about a fifth of the crowd wore any type of face covering.
Trump spoke for 45 minutes. His normal rally remarks usually stretch beyond an hour. This, I noted at the time, was unusual. But it was chilly and windy on the north shore of Lake Superior on the last day of September.
When we made the sprint back to the warm airplane, the group of reporters and photographers surmised the president did not want to spend any additional time exposed to such weather. Later we would learn from official sources and media reports that Trump was apparently already feeling unwell, that he fell asleep for part of the two-hour flight back to Maryland and an ill Hope Hicks, counselor to the president, had decided to isolate herself on the plane. She would test positive for the coronavirus the following morning, something the public did not know until Bloomberg’s Jennifer Jacobs broke the story late Thursday.
Trump, during his travels Wednesday, did not make remarks before boarding or stepping off the plane and he did not come back to the press cabin at any time to speak to us. That was unusual but not unprecedented.
We also had no contact with Hicks that day.
White House chief of staff Mark Meadows did chat for about 10 minutes with the poolers on the plane during the flight home from Minnesota. He said on Friday that he had tested negative for COVID-19.
Flight to New Jersey
In a decision that is being criticized by health officials, journalists and Democrats, Trump, on Thursday, following Hicks’ diagnosis, flew to his private club in Bedminster, New Jersey, for a round-table and fundraiser with supporters. Several White House aides who had been in close proximity to Hicks did not join the trip.
Asked why the president went ahead with the journey, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters on Friday afternoon that “it was deemed safe” by White House operations.
At that outdoor fundraiser, the president was kept more than 6 feet (2 meters) from a group of about 18 donors, who were not wearing masks, according to campaign sources.
While the president was in New Jersey, I was on an Amtrak train to the state of Delaware to prepare to resume coverage of the Joe Biden campaign. Although we would not be departing with the Democratic Party candidate to Michigan until Friday, the campaign requires all pool reporters traveling with the candidate to take a COVID-19 test the prior day. This was done at a Wilmington hotel by a pair of technicians from a chain pharmacy, and the antigen test is similar to the one conducted at the White House.
Unlike the procedure in the White House, where we are not informed of the results unless it is a “positive,” the reporters in Wilmington waited on the spot while their swabs are analyzed by the humming Abbott ID NOW machine, which, after about 15 minutes, spits out a piece of paper with the results.
“COVID-19: Negative. Procedural control valid,” mine read.
At that point, I assumed I was good to go and returned to my downtown hotel to rest for Friday morning, when we were scheduled to join the Biden motorcade near his residence and ride to the New Castle airport.
When word came of Hicks’ positive test and her presence on the Air Force One flights the previous day, I notified the Biden campaign, which consulted with medical advisers, and it was decided that out an abundance of caution I stay back on Friday.
It would be a few hours later, with a @realDonaldTrump tweet, that we learned one more passenger on Air Force One had tested positive for the coronavirus: the president himself.