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The Truth About Trump’s COVID Test Timeline

Why the president is hiding his previous COVID tests and lying about what he knew and when.
October 5, 2020
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Among the subplots and grotesqueries of President Trump’s response to COVID-19 outbreak in the White House is: When did Trump know he was sick?

COVID-19 is a highly contagious pathogen. Once possible exposure is identified best practices for containment are quarantine for those exposed; isolation for those infected; and a strict regime of social distancing and and use of PPE for those in the immediate community, so as to make accidental transmission difficult and stop the virus from jumping to another community.

The White House seems to have taken none of these actions.

The frequent testing regime that the White House claims to have in place existed as a tool to ensure swift action if someone was exposed and asymptomatic also seems not to have worked.

Why is that? The president’s doctors and White House spokespeople have refused to answer questions about the results of tests that supposedly took place between exposure to the virus and Thursday’s announcement that the president had been infected. Earlier today, Dr. Sean Conley laughed when asked and said, “everybody wants that.”

If “everyone wants” a piece of information that is easy to provide and which would reassure the country about the system in place to protect the president and his executive office, then there’s no good reason for the White House not to release it.

Unless the truth turns out to be problematic.

I’ve spoken to multiple doctors who have either treated COVID-19 patients or have a specialty in immunology or epidemiology. To a person the simple fact that this outbreak proceeded as it did signaled that the White House was not following the basic protocols laid out by their own administration.

The full extent of the White House’s irresponsibility is not clear because their lies and dissembling have left us with a muddied timeline that contains few solid fence posts. But from what we do know—or think we know—the fact pattern suggests gross negligence in managing the virus.

Consider:

  1. On October 1 the president traveled from Washington to New Jersey after being informed that those in his traveling party had been exposed through a close aide (Hope Hicks) who had tested positive before they left.
  2. Once in New Jersey he held multiple indoor maskless receptions (with buffet!) involving hundreds of people.
  3. Later that night Trump went on Fox News and claimed he did not know whether or not he had tested positive for COVID-19—even though the Wall Street Journal reported that he had received a positive test earlier in the day.

But all of that is just a start. Below is a look at the timeline of what we know—and what we don’t know.

The Timeline 

“Weeks Ago”

  • On October 4, Maggie Haberman reported that two members of the White House residence staff had tested positive “weeks ago.” It remains unclear when that really was, what their jobs are, and if they had any exposure to the president’s inner circle.
  • On October 9, Maggie Haberman reported that two additional members of the White House residence staff had tested positive and that President Trump and First Lady Melania Trump were aware.

September 26, Saturday

  • The White House hosts multiple receptions and a press event announcing their new Supreme Court nominee, Amy Coney Barrett. Among the attendees who would test positive for COVID in the days following it: POTUS, FLOTUS, Sen. Thom Tillis, Kellyanne Conway, Sen. Mike Lee, and Notre Dame president Fr. John Jenkins.

September 27, Sunday

September 28, Monday

  • Trump holds a press conference with Vice President Mike Pence in which the two men are unusually distant from one another. This could have been done for any number of reasons but it was unusual and it came two days after we now know for certain that Trump had been exposed to the virus.

September 29, Tuesday

  • Donald Trump debates Joe Biden in Cleveland.
  • Trump arrived in Cleveland at 4:55 p.m.
  • Trump departed for the debate site at 8:35 p.m.
  • Trump did not take a COVID test on site in Cleveland before the debate, according to Chris Wallace citing a lack of time.
    • A rapid test takes about 15 minutes.
  • The White House refuses to say whether President Trump took a COVID-19 test on Monday, September 28.
  • The White House refuses to say whether he took a test earlier in the day on Tuesday, September 29.
  • Cleveland Clinic released a statement saying only that the Trump campaign had to certify that everyone traveling to the debate had tested negative in the 72 hours before debate. This was based on the “honor system,” per Chris Wallace.
  • All of which raises three questions:
    • Did Trump provide a negative test to debate organizers, or simply report the existence of a negative result?
    • If so, on what date was the supposed negative test performed?
    • And were any tests performed on the president on subsequent dates that were not reported?
  • Update: In an interview with MSNBC on Friday, October 9th, White House spokesperson Brian Morgenstern refused to answer multiple questions about whether the president had complied with the Cleveland Clinic guidelines.

September 30, Wednesday

  • Trump holds a private indoor fundraising event in Minnesota at 6:00 p.m.
  • Later in the evening Hope Hicks begins to exhibit COVID-19 symptoms around the time of the president’s very socially un-distant rally in Duluth. She is said to be put in “isolation” on the plane flight home to Washington, meaning the White House had good reason to believe the president and those traveling with him were exposed.
  • The White House refuses to say whether President Trump took a COVID-19 test on Wednesday, September 30.

October 1, Thursday

    • Morning: Hope Hicks receives a positive test result.
      • Note: Chief of Staff Mark Meadows lies about when the White House knew about Hicks, claiming that they heard about her test “as Marine One was taking off.” This appears to be false.
    • 1:00 p.m.: Marine One takes off for New Jersey.
  • Late Afternoon: The president holds multiple indoor fundraiser events with buffet.
  • 6:00 p.m.: Jennifer Jacobs breaks the news publicly that Hicks has tested positive.
    • Note: There is no reason to believe the White House was going to acknowledge that Hicks had contracted the virus had Jacobs not broken the story. They had a full schedule of events for the following day that were not cancelled until much later.
  • Time Unknown: Trump takes a rapid test that comes back positive at some point in the evening after the New Jersey events, but before 9:00 p.m.
    • Kayleigh Mcenany will later say that this was the “first positive test” Trump had received.
  • 9:00 p.m.: Trump calls into Sean Hannity’s show and says he does not know the results of his test yet.
    • He also claims to have just heard about Hicks.
    • Both of these statements were lies.

October 2, Friday

  • Later in the Morning: Trump begins to experience relatively severe symptoms, including fever and low oxygen levels.
  • 6:16 p.m.: Trump is airlifted to Walter Reed and admitted to the hospital.

October 3, Saturday

  • 11:38 a.m.: In his first press conference of the day, Dr. Sean Conley says Trump is “72 hours into diagnosis” and that “48 hours ago the president received a special antibody therapy.”
    • If true, this would have meant that Trump had been diagnosed on the morning of Wednesday, September 30. And was being treated on the morning of Thursday, October 1—just as Hope Hicks was getting her test results. Both of these conflict with the White House’s timeline.
    • The White House later corrected Conley’s claims, insisting that when Conley had said “72 hours” he meant “day three.”
    • And that when Conley said Trump had begun treatment “48 hours earlier” he meant it as “day two” of the virus or more colloquially, “yesterday”—in other words, Friday.
    • I have never heard someone use the phrase “48 hours ago” to describe something that happened “yesterday.” But that is what the White House is claiming Conley meant.

October 4, Sunday

  • Sean Conely gives a third press conference in which he is asked about his conflicting statements.
  • He responds: “I was trying to reflect the upbeat attitude that the team, the president in 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 it came off that we’re trying to hide something.”
  • ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

October 5, Monday

Indeed.


So in summary, here is what we know about the timeline of President Trump’s infection:

  1. Trump tested negative at some point between Saturday, September 26 and Monday, September 28, if the “certified” statement they gave to the Cleveland Clinic was accurate.
  2. We have no idea if he was tested on any other days during the period between September 26 and October 1. If he was tested on any of those other days, we have no idea what the results were.
  3. Trump’s doctors initially said that his first positive test was on Wednesday, September 30, but then corrected this claim in a bizarre manner.
  4. The White House claims that Trump is tested daily but explicitly said they will not give a read out of his past tests.
  5. The White House also will not release the number or timing of other staffers who contracted the virus.

Finally, here is what doctors say about how these tests usually work:

  1. “If Trump really was getting daily negative tests and was testing negative, how did he suddenly have such a high viral load by Thursday that he would have a fever and on Friday he was so ill that he was needing oxygen and experimental therapies. . . . Average time to having severe symptoms requiring ICU care is 10 to 12 days.” —Dr. Leana Wen
  2. Dr. Carl Bergstrom says there is usually a 2 to 3 day presymptomatic period in which a patient would test positive. If you believe the White House timeline, then President Trump was experiencing relatively severe symptoms within hours of his positive test.
  3. An infectious disease expert I spoke to said there must have been “lack of adherence to existing protocols” regarding testing and that the first positive test would likely have been earlier than just 12 hours before the president needed to receive oxygen — especially if the White House was truly testing the president on a daily basis.

At minimum we know that President Trump:

  • Held a non-essential indoor gathering on September 26 for Judge Barrett.
  • Was aware he had been exposed to the virus no later than September 30 (because of the isolation of Hope Hicks aboard Air Force One).
  • Exposed unknown hundreds in Washington and New Jersey to the virus after learning of Hicks’s positive test.
  • Did not inform White House staff and institute recommended protocols.
  • Lied about his COVID-19 status in a nationally televised interview.

Given these facts, his actions are already inexcusable.

But the public deserves to know whether Trump’s negligence and lying goes even further.

The big questions are: Did Trump already know that he or a close staff member had COVID when he took the stage in Cleveland to debate Joe Biden? Did he lie to the Cleveland Clinic about whether or not he had been tested? Has he been lying about his daily testing regimen?

America deserves answers.

We will update this timeline as more information becomes available.

Update: Friday October 9th, 11:30 A.M. – This article has been updated to include a White House spokesperson’s refusal to answer whether Trump complied with the Cleveland Clinic testing guidelines, the news about two more WH residence staff previously contracting the virus, and the president’s suggestion he may have contracted the virus from Gold Star families.

Tim Miller

Tim Miller is The Bulwark's writer-at-large and a communications consultant. He previously served as senior advisor to the anti-Trump Our Principles PAC, communications director for Jeb Bush, and spokesman for the Republican National Committee.