Led by notorious germaphobe, West Wing braces for coronavirus
Posted March 3, 2020 5:31 p.m. EST
CNN — It's a refrain President Donald Trump repeats whenever he encounters a cough, a sneeze or a sniffle.
"I can't get sick. I can't get sick," the President insists when he wants to justify dismissing from the room an underling who might infect him with a bug, according to people who have heard him say it. Experienced aides have encouraged others not to take it personally.
In some ways, Trump has been unwittingly preparing his staff for years to prevent the spread of coronavirus. He is a self-described germaphobe who is known to glare at aides who sneeze in his vicinity or try to shake hands with him after coughing. Before becoming president, he once wrote the practice of shaking hands was "barbaric," though it's one political tradition even he's been unable to banish.
In the age of coronavirus, the White House is the hub for the federal response -- its secure Situation Room used to convene meetings of the President's task force and the once-underused Briefing Room suddenly sprung into service for daily updates from officials.
But the complex is also a workplace where more than a thousand employees, some stuffed into tight workspaces, work for a boss infamous for a fear of germs and a disgust of illness. At least once a week, the operation travels en masse with the President on political or official trips aboard a fleet of aircraft led by Air Force One. Teleworking, while encouraged at some federal agencies, is rare.
And like other workplaces across the country, White House officials are beginning to brace for the possibility -- some say the eventuality -- that coronavirus strikes.
The President has sought to impart some of his anti-germ tendencies.
"When somebody sneezes -- I mean, I try and bail out as much as possible when they're sneezing," Trump said last week during a briefing on the coronavirus, using his own aversion to potential maladies as an example for Americans trying to avoid getting sick.
Since then, Trump has seemed to adopt a more sober tone when discussing the coronavirus outbreak, which has now spread to 118 people in the United States, including nine deaths.
In recent days, advisers close to the President urged him to stop downplaying the outbreak, warning it could hurt him in the long run if the number of cases continues to skyrocket. Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and senior adviser, had been one official who had encouraged the President to tamp down alarm in hopes of stabilizing the markets.
West Wing precautions
Inside the West Wing, the political ramifications of the coronavirus outbreak have become more apparent as the stock market convulses and the number of American deaths rise. But even as they confront the national crisis, staffers are taking their own precautions to avoid getting sick.
Staffers recently received advisories about the coronavirus epidemic that focused on prevention and guidelines for what to do if experiencing coronavirus symptoms. The information distributed to staff included a one-pager from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reminding people to wash their hands, stay home if they are sick and informing people of the coronavirus symptoms, similar to information health officials have publicly distributed or discussed.
One official said staffers have appeared more attuned to their health amid the outbreak, wiping down desks with anti-bacterial wipes and being more careful about sneezing into a tissue or arm.
But aides have not received any formal guidance on workplace procedures if the virus escalates further, like lawmakers on Capitol Hill recently received, according to officials.
The White House declined to identify any specific contingencies related to coronavirus and wouldn't say what steps are being taken to prevent Trump or Vice President Mike Pence -- who is leading the administration's response efforts -- from contracting the disease. Trump has received a yearly flu shot, but vaccines for coronavirus are still more than a year away, health experts have said.
Last week, Pence shook hands in Florida with students at a military academy whose classmate was later quarantined because his mother had been in contact with someone who had coronavirus. The vice president's office said Pence never encountered the student in question. But the episode reflected the potential for transmission as top administration officials continue their travel around the country.
Sticking to routine
Publicly, Trump has shrugged off suggestions he alter his routine to avoid exposure to COVID-19.
"We lead a life. I get around," Trump told reporters over the weekend when asked whether he was taking any special precautions to avoid coming into contact with the virus. "I think we're going to be in very good shape."
Officials said they had not noticed any changes in the ways Trump interacts with people he meets at the White House or on his trips around the country. Already, Trump was highly attuned to avoiding sick individuals and whatever germs they might be conveying.
Trump himself played a role in personally removing his acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney from his two-day trip to India last week because Mulvaney had a cold. According to one person close to Mulvaney, White House doctors advised against having him travel in such close proximity to the President and the first lady, but Trump was also uncomfortable being in such close proximity with someone who was ill.
Mulvaney was subject to an on-camera scolding last year when Trump admonished him for coughing in the Oval Office as he was taping an interview with George Stephanopoulos of ABC News.
"I don't like that, you know, I don't like that," Trump said. "If you're going to cough, please leave the room. You just can't, you just can't cough."
Trump's aides have learned to keep sanitizing gel and wipes nearby when the President is on the road. In October 2018, an image of the President climbing the stairs to Air Force One went viral because he appeared to have a piece of white toilet paper stuck to his shoe. An aide later clarified it was the anti-bacterial wipe the President uses after he shakes hands and greets supporters on the rope line at airports.
For now, Trump has decided not to forgo political rallies, which can bring tens of thousands of his supporters into tightly packed arenas. He told reporters on Monday the events remain "very safe" for both him and his potential Democratic rivals to host, even as other large gatherings like conferences and summits in the United States are scrapped.
On Tuesday, Trump said he was "hearing more and more" about potential risks related to coronavirus at his rallies, but said he wasn't considering a pause in his politicking.
"I don't think it would be necessary," he said.
The President's reelection campaign has followed Democratic candidates across the country as their primary season is underway. Right now, two aides said there are no plans for Trump to cancel any of his rallies because of the coronavirus, and several are currently in the works.
Trump traveled Monday to the 9,605-capacity Bojangles' Coliseum in Charlotte to host a rally ahead of North Carolina's Super Tuesday primary. "We've got to all work together on this one to safeguard our people. We're going to safeguard our people," he told a packed-in crowd.
Before taking the stage, the President took pictures with VIP supporters backstage, as he often does before rallies, offering a handshake and a few moments of up-close chit-chat. When Trump participates in photo-lines, an aide is usually nearby with a bottle of hand sanitizer to squirt into his palm whenever he requests it.
While other major American companies, like Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan and CNN parent company Warner Media, have announced restrictions on employee travel, the White House hasn't taken those steps yet. On Friday, Trump is scheduled to visit tornado damage in Tennessee and the CDC headquarters in Atlanta, where he will undoubtedly encounter hands to shake.
He is scheduled to speak at a public health conference in Orlando on Monday and will travel to the Republican Jewish Coalition conference next weekend in Las Vegas.
A summit of Southeast Asian leaders had been scheduled to coincide with the Las Vegas trip but that was canceled amid coronavirus fears. And the White House has not announced any overseas travel for the President for the next few months.
At least one of Trump's foreign counterparts -- German Chancellor Angela Merkel -- seemed momentarily caught off guard Tuesday when a government official refused her handshake during a cabinet meeting.
Ending handshakes is likely a development Trump would welcome.
"One of the curses of American society is the simple act of shaking hands, and the more successful and famous one becomes the worse this terrible custom seems to get," he wrote in his 1997 book, "The Art of the Comeback."