President Trump touted “tremendous progress” in the fight against COVID-19 on Monday even as a member of his inner circle tested positive for the disease, Major League Baseball’s already shortened season was thrown into disarray and Google became the first major U.S. corporation to direct employees to work from home for another year.
National security advisor Robert O’Brien, the highest-ranking member of Trump’s administration to come down with the virus, joined the more than 4.2 million Americans who have contracted the coronavirus in an outbreak that shows few signs of ebbing amid a patchwork of federal and state mitigation efforts.
The latest cascade of bad news came as Congress and the Trump administration struggled to extend federal relief programs that expire Friday.
After days of infighting, Senate Republicans released an economic rescue proposal Monday that would sharply reduce the $600 weekly unemployment bonus laid-off workers had been eligible to receive since early April.
Democrats are seeking a more generous economic support package, however, and no deal is expected before the current benefits expire.
Even as states across the South and West reported rising caseloads, and as recently reopened bars and other businesses were forced to curtail operations again in some areas, Trump insisted that the economy would soon be roaring and that vaccines and treatments are just around the corner.
But he showed little patience for the science to catch up to his rosy predictions.
“I really do believe a lot of the governors should be opening up states that they’re not opening,” he said as he toured a Fujifilm Diosynth Biotechnologies plant churning out parts of a potential COVID-19 vaccine in Morrisville, N.C.
Trump was forced last week to cancel the in-person portion of the Republican National Convention, scheduled for Aug. 24-27, and he has not staged large campaign rallies since coronavirus cases spiked in Tulsa, Okla., after a Trump rally there last month.
The latest shock came as the Miami Marlins announced an outbreak among players and coaches, forcing Major League Baseball to postpone two games and raising questions about the rest of the already truncated baseball schedule.
Trump had urged professional sports leagues to resume their seasons, seeing sports as signs of normalcy. To try to limit outbreaks, Major League Baseball has held games without fans and has banned high fives, fist bumps and spitting among players.
School systems and employers are facing similar challenges as they attempt to safely reopen.
Google said it would keep its workforce home until at least next July, the first major U.S. corporation to announce such an extended timetable. The move is expected to affect roughly 200,000 full-time and contract employees across Alphabet Inc., Google’s parent company, and may push other technology giants to delay their reopening plans.
The failure to adequately confront the outbreak has severely undercut Trump’s political fortunes. With more than 147,000 reported deaths from COVID-19, the United States is far outpacing the rest of the world in fatalities despite its historic advantages in science, medicine and wealth.
“We are the global hot spot for this pandemic,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute. “It’s very hard to protect anyone. None of us is safe. And we have obviously brought this upon ourselves through our policies that have consistently ignored science and evidence.”
After touring the lab Monday, Trump dismissed questions about recent polls showing him trailing expected Democratic nominee Joe Biden in North Carolina and other crucial battleground states. In an NBC New/Marist poll released Monday, Biden led Trump by 7 percentage points in North Carolina, a state that Trump comfortably carried in 2016.
Trump’s trip was partially overshadowed by the latest case in the White House. In an unsigned statement, White House officials said O’Brien’s symptoms were mild and that he had “been self-isolating and working from a secure location off site.”
The statement said there was no risk of exposure to Trump or Vice President Mike Pence and that the work of the National Security Council “continues uninterrupted.”
The statement did not say how recently O’Brien, who normally meets regularly or travels with the president, had been with Trump or other senior White House or national security officials.
Nor did it say where and when O’Brien might have been exposed and when he received his test results. Trump’s top economic advisor, Larry Kudlow, told reporters at the White House that O’Brien may have gotten it from his daughter, who also tested positive.
Trump told reporters at the White House that “I haven’t seen him lately,” which would be remarkable, if true, given O’Brien’s level of access and influence. His infection raises concerns about national security and the potential spread to Trump and other top officials.
“This is a guy who walks into the Oval Office to tell the president what the latest crisis is and what needs to be done. He’s not going to be able to do that” while working from home, said Leon E. Panetta, a former Defense secretary, CIA director and White House chief of staff under presidents Clinton and Obama.
Typically, the national security advisor briefs the president at least once a day, though Trump generally receives fewer briefings than his predecessors. O’Brien also conducts regular meetings with Pentagon and intelligence chiefs.
“There are a lot of key people that that person comes into contact with, all of which I’m sure are asking themselves whether the hell they’ve got it or not, including the president, who is probably getting a dozen more tests,” Panetta said.
O’Brien was a Los Angeles lawyer before he was named Trump’s fourth national security advisor last September.
Several White House aides, including Katie Miller, Pence’s communications director, tested positive in May, as did one of Trump’s valets, a member of the Navy who serves the president meals and performs other personal tasks.
One of the White House cafeterias closed last week after a member of the staff tested positive, according to reports.
“You cannot protect people in an organization, in a company, in a school if you’re in a community with out-of-control outbreaks,” Jha said. “It will seep in. It’s like you’re in the middle of a forest fire and you’re trying to keep your home protected.”