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‘It was just a matter of time’ before virus broke out at White House, says former aide

Several of President Trump's family members and close associates have tested positive for COVID-19 along with him. What is the atmosphere like at the White House when it comes to the pandemic? Olivia Troye, a former adviser to Vice President Mike Pence who previously participated on the White House Coronavirus Task Force, left the administration in August. She joins John Yang to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The president may be returning to the White House tonight, but the number of confirmed coronavirus cases among White House staffers ticked higher today, raising questions, as we have heard, about the precautions in place in the White House, and how well they were followed.

    John Yang gets an insider's perspective from Olivia Troye. She's a former adviser to Vice President Pence who previously worked on the White House Coronavirus Task Force. She left the administration in August. She has since been working with Republican groups who oppose the president's reelection.

  • John Yang:

    Olivia, let's start off with the question that Judy just posed.

    What procedures were in place when you were in the White House, in terms of wearing masks, in terms of testing staff working in the West Wing and in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building?

  • Olivia Troye:

    Well, certainly, we had guidelines posted and measures in place.

    We had masks available, especially upon entering the West Wing, for immediate staff. We were — they were conducting testing, for example, for me, who saw the vice president on a daily basis, or any senior staff who were interacting with the president and the vice president.

    But the truth is, the issue was that, even though these masks were available, nobody was really following the protocols internally. There was — the West Wing is a very small space. People also sit in very close proximity to each other, and people were not following these guidelines.

    We weren't wearing the masks all of the time. And we were, quite frankly, just very exposed to each other.

  • John Yang:

    Even though you were on the — the vice president's lead staffer on the Coronavirus Task Force, you say you wouldn't wear a mask.

    Is that — why is that? Is that because it was frowned upon? Did you feel pressure not to wear a mask?

  • Olivia Troye:

    You know, the answer is twofold.

    So, I wore a mask when I felt — I tried to at times, and I would wear it around the West Wing or in the hallways in the EEOB. But the truth, it was awkward, because you would walk into a meeting, and you would get these looks from some of the senior staff in the White House.

    And, at times, I was complicit in that. You take your mask off. And, granted, I was in a fortunate situation where I am tested. And, as you have seen, there is no such thing as a real rapid test, when some of the times that we were tested, we certainly had false negatives and false positives, on both ends.

    So that wasn't a guarantee. I was also aware that not everyone in the building is tested. Not everyone on the staff is tested. And people come in and out of these buildings all the time. So the potential for exposure is still there.

  • John Yang:

    You had a lot of experts on this task force, Dr. Fauci, Dr. Birx.

    What was their reaction when they came into the West Wing for task force meetings and saw all this staff not wearing masks sort of crammed into this real — as you say, it is a very crowded — the West Wing is a very crowded work space.

  • Oliva Troye:

    It was frustrating.

    They were very frustrated with the situation. Like, I had these conversations where I would see people like Dr. Fauci, Dr. Redfield, Dr. Birx. Dr. Birx had — has an office in the West Wing. I don't know if she still does, but she did at the time when I was still there, and she wore her mask all the time.

    She — unless she was about to speak, she did follow the proper protocols. And it was — everybody knew that it was just a matter of time before something like the outbreak that you're seeing happen this weekend and over the past few days would happen, because the fact is, this virus doesn't discriminate.

    It can impact anyone and everyone, including all of us in the White House, when we were there.

  • John Yang:

    The president on social media — two things on social media I want to get your reaction to.

    The president yesterday in his video said: I get it. I under — I get it and I understand it.

    And then today he said he feels better than he has in 20 years, and that people should not be afraid of COVID.

    After all the meetings, all the task force meetings, all the briefings that you helped coordinate that the president sat through, what did your — what's your reaction when you first heard him yesterday say, I get it?

  • Olivia Troye:

    I just — you know, my reaction was, I wish he would have gotten it back in January, when we did the initial briefing, when we told you how this was going to be.

    And the problem is, perhaps you got it, but that is not what you were telling the general public.

    And so when I saw him say, I finally get it, I was also saddened, because I cannot believe that it took him personally actually experiencing COVID to finally understand the gravity of the situation that a lot of Americans and people who have lost loved ones or who are currently still suffering with COVID today have experienced.

  • John Yang:

    But he also today said he felt — he feels better than he has in 20 years and that people shouldn't be afraid of COVID.

    And, also, I should note, he never has — he's never mentioned the people you just mentioned, the people who have lost — who have lost loved ones in the United States.

  • Olivia Troye:

    I was concerned, actually, when I saw the president fall ill. And I was concerned. Obviously, you never want to see the commander in chief be sick or have anything happen to him. He is the leader of our country.

    However, I was concerned that, knowing what I know about how this White House works, and the political dynamics in it, and the messaging that comes out of it, I was concerned that he would use this as an opportunity to continue his messaging of playing down the pandemic and playing down the virus, which is just factually just incorrect.

    And so I'm seeing it develop right before my very eyes, where he's saying: I had it. It's no big deal. Everything's fine. Don't let it affect your personal life.

    That's just not accurate.

  • John Yang:

    Olivia Troye, former top staffer on the White House Coronavirus Task Force, thank you very much.

  • Olivia Troye:

    Thank you for having me.

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