President Donald Trump’s coronavirus diagnosis exposes the Capitol’s laissez-faire approach to testing for the deadly disease, particularly for congressional Republicans who interact regularly with the president and his top aides.
The president regularly hosts Republican senators at the White House, including for the introduction of Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett. At these events, these lawmakers and much of the crowd are maskless. Senators were tested prior to the Barrett announcement, according a person with knowledge of the event, but testing does not always pick up the disease.
While some influential Senate Republicans have stumped for a comprehensive testing program in the Capitol, leaders in both parties have rejected it. That makes it difficult to know at the moment whether the spread of coronavirus has breached the Capitol, particularly after the Senate adjourned for the weekend and sent senators back to their home states across the country.
Moreover, Barrett has met with roughly two dozen senators since being introduced by Trump last weekend. White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and counsel Pat Cipollone have attended these meetings; neither they nor Barrett have tested positive at this time.
On Hugh Hewitt’s radio show, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on Friday that he didn’t know whether any senators had the virus right now, and emphasized the importance that lawmakers follow public health guidelines. He said some of Barrett’s hearing is likely to be conducted remotely by senators and said that Trump’s diagnosis “underscores that the coronavirus is not concerned about” the election.
“It can sneak up on you as it did with the president and the first lady. So we’re keeping an eye on everyone,” McConnell said. He said he hadn’t spoken to Trump since the diagnosis.
McConnell did not commit to holding a vote on Barrett before the election, but indicated the Oct. 12 hearing is still on track. The Senate will convene on Monday afternoon to vote on lower-level judicial nominees.
Given the number of meetings top Senate and House members have at the White House with his president and his staff, the diagnosis of the president and his aides at a minimum highlights the risk to a Capitol filled with lawmakers in their 70s and 80s particularly susceptible to the deadly pandemic’s effects. Treasury Secretary Mnuchin met with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) this week to discuss coronavirus relief. A spokesperson for Mnuchin said Friday morning he tested negative for coronavirus.
News of Trump’s coronavirus diagnosis quickly prompted bipartisan statements wishing the president and the first lady, who also tested positive, a quick recovery.
“Happy to hear the White House physician’s report that @POTUS and @FLOTUS are feeling well following their positive tests for COVID-19,” said McConnell. “Let’s continue to pray today and every day for our President and our First Lady and for all those impacted by COVID-19.”
“I wish the President and First Lady a speedy recovery,” added Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who tested positive for coronavirus antibodies this year. “Having had COVID-19, let me stress: all need to take this seriously. Please follow CDC guidelines of mask wearing, hand washing, and social distancing.”
Trump’s diagnosis will almost certainly revive the debate over coronavirus testing on Capitol Hill. Earlier this year, the White House offered to provide rapid testing for members of Congress, but Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and McConnell declined to accept, citing that tests should be prioritized for frontline workers.
The move drew some push back from top Republicans. “The speaker and the leader should look at this not from the point of view of special privilege for members, but a protection for all the people this unique set of travelers comes in contact with just to get to work and back,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a member of GOP leadership, in May.
Since the start of the outbreak, most senators have worn masks and taken extra precautions to try to prevent the spread of the disease. Republicans have their daily lunches in a large room, while Democrats regularly communicate almost entirely by phone.
But members of Congress have still been exposed to the virus. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) have both tested positive for the virus, and in addition to Kaine, Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) also tested positive for coronavirus antibodies.
Several senators, including Sens. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) have gone into quarantine after coming into contact with individuals who tested positive.
While lawmakers are still keeping on skeleton staffs in the Capitol during the pandemic, there’s evidence of some fatigue. On Thursday, a sizable minority of staffers walked around the Russell Senate Office Building without masks, for example.
And though members of the media have sought to reduce their footprint in the Capitol, the Supreme Court nomination has noticeably increased the number of reporters interacting with senators and their staffs.