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Trump’s infection throws campaign, White House into upheaval

The nation awoke Friday to the stunning news that President Trump and the first lady had tested positive for COVID-19. As the day went on, officials acknowledged that Trump is experiencing mild symptoms, and by evening, he was being transported to Walter Reed National Medical Center, reportedly as a precaution. Yamiche Alcindor reports and joins Lisa Desjardins and Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    President Trump is being taken to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, tonight, after testing positive for the coronavirus overnight.

    White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said that he is experiencing — quote — "mild symptoms" and was to be airlifted to the military hospital, she says, out of an abundance of caution.

    There are reports tonight that the president's symptoms include a low-grade fever, fatigue, nasal congestion, and cough.

    McEnany said he is expected to stay at Walter Reed for several days and will work from the hospital's presidential suite.

    Word of his positive test raised more questions than it answered, and brought much uncertainty to the state of the presidential campaign and beyond.

    Our White House correspondent, Yamiche Alcindor begins our coverage.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    The global pandemic hitting home at the White House, President Trump now infected with the very virus he's been fighting to contain, while at the same time downplaying.

    Today, in a tweet at 12:54 a.m., the president announced that both he and first lady Melania Trump tested positive for the coronavirus.

    He wrote — quote — "We will begin our quarantine and recovery process immediately."

    In the meantime, the White House scrambled to do contact tracing, and officials there expressed optimism.

    The chief of staff, Mark Meadows:

  • Mark Meadows:

    The American people can rest assured that we have a president that is not only on the job, he will remain on the job. And I'm optimistic that he will have a very quick and speedy recovery.

    He has mild symptoms. As we look at that, the doctor will continue to provide expertise.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    And White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany spoke on Fox News this afternoon.

  • Kayleigh McEnany:

    He's having mild symptoms, but he's feeling good. He's in good spirits. I spoke to him last night, and he absolutely was hard at work.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    But that revelation comes hours after news broke that Hope Hicks, a close Trump adviser who traveled with the president this week, had the virus.

    That sparked immediate concern of exposure amongst the president's inner circle and Washington's top officials. This morning, Vice President Mike Pence and his wife, Karen, announced they tested negative. Pence's doctor said he does not need to quarantine.

    The health and human services secretary, Alex Azar, who testified before Congress today on political interference in the U.S.' COVID response, also tested negative.

    But news broke this morning that Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel tested positive on Wednesday. She was last with the president last Friday.

    Meanwhile, the Democratic presidential nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden, tested negative for the virus. He said in a tweet that he — quote — "will continue to pray for the health and safety of the president."

    The president's infection upends an already unprecedented campaign.

  • President Donald Trump:

    I don't wear masks like him. Every time you see him, he's got a mask.

    I put a mask on, you know, when I think I need it.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    The president has long downplayed the virus, and cast doubt on the necessity of social distancing and facial coverings.

  • President Donald Trump:

    That's a little bit like the flu. It's a little like the regular flu that we have flu shots for. And we will essentially have a flu shot for this in a fairly quick manner.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    And back in March, he told journalist Bob Woodward in a phone interview that he intentionally downplayed the virus' severity.

  • President Donald Trump:

    I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down…

  • Bob Woodward:

    Yes, sir.

  • President Donald Trump:

    … because I don't want to create a panic.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    At the presidential debate this week, he claimed his large campaign rallies aren't risky events. Critics quickly pointed out that former GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain died of coronavirus after attending one of the president's indoor rallies in Oklahoma.

    At a charity dinner before his positive test result last night, the president was optimistic that the pandemic would end soon.

  • President Donald Trump:

    The end of pandemic is in sight.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Meanwhile, hospitalizations have hit their highest levels since May in at least nine states across the U.S. National cases have surpassed 7.2 million.

    This morning, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she hopes President Trump's positive test result is a turning point in his attitude toward the virus.

  • House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.:

    This is tragic. It's very sad. But it also is something that, again, going into crowds unmasked and all the rest, was sort of a brazen invitation for this to happen.

    Sad that it did, but I'm nonetheless hopeful that it'll be a transition to a saner approach to what this virus is all about.

  • Man:

    President, America, Donald Trump.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Today, global markets quickly fumbled, as news of his infection broke around the world. President Trump is not the first head of state to test positive for the virus, among them, the U.K.'s prime minister, Boris Johnson, and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.

    World leaders sent the president their well-wishes. Russian President Vladimir Putin wrote in a memo that he is sending sincere support to President Trump.

    But some struck a more critical note. The French president's spokesman Gabriel Attal said the president's infection is "a sign that the virus spares no one, including those who are the most skeptical about its reality and gravity."

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And Yamiche joins me now from the White House, along with our Lisa Desjardins, who is in Maine tonight reporting on the Senate race there

    Hello to both of you.

    And, Yamiche, I'm looking separately at pictures from the White House. It seems that they are, at this point, not allowing the press to see the president as he leaves the White House building and goes to a awaiting helicopter.

    But what do we know, at this point, about the president's health and how it got to this point?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    This is a remarkable moment for this White House, where the president of the United States, arguably the most protected American in the country, could not protect himself or his workplace from the coronavirus pandemic.

    White House officials say that, out of an abundance of caution, the president is being moved to Walter Reed Hospital. They say that he is going to be working there, and that he is in good spirits, that he is experiencing mild symptoms.

    There are reports he had a low-grade fever, some sort of nasal congestion, as well as fatigue. The White House doctor says that he feels as though the president is going to be continuing to be looked at and monitored around the clock.

    In terms of treatment, the president has been given one infusion of an experimental or promising, I'm told, cocktail of antibody medicines that are aiming to help him. The president is also, the doctor says, taking vitamin D and zinc and a daily aspirin.

    The president though, how we got here is a critical question. And it's a question that is really to be answered, at least in part, when you look at the president's calendar and his extensive travel over the last few days.

    So, to put up for people — I hope we can put up that graphic — we looked at — he had four rallies between now and last Thursday. Last Thursday, September 24, he was in a rally in Jacksonville, Florida. The following days, he was in Virginia and Pennsylvania.

    Last Saturday, he was in the Rose Garden with Amy Coney Barrett, the judge that he has nominated to the Supreme Court. Then, on Tuesday, September 29, he traveled to Cleveland for the presidential debate.

    And this is really where things get critical for this time period to pay close attention. On Wednesday, September 30, the president, along with his family and Hope Hicks, who has tested positive now, traveled to Minnesota.

    That night, she was diagnosed with the coronavirus. The next day, after the president knew that Hope Hicks had been diagnosed, he traveled to Bedminster, New Jersey, for a fund-raiser overnight. And, overnight, we learned on Thursday that he himself tested positive for the virus.

    So, I pressed the White House today, and a number of reporters pressed the White House, why did the president travel after he knew that Hope Hicks tested positive?

    I'm told that the White House operations cleared the president to travel. Another thing that's a big question, how is this going to impact the president's work schedule? How is he going to be able to lead the nation while he has this virus?

    We're told that he's going to work from Walter Reed, and that he's been working from the White House. But there are a lot of health officials that are saying, this is a he president who's 74 years old, who is overweight, and who is part of the high-risk group that we have been talking about over and over again for people who could have complications for this coronavirus.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, just very quickly, Yamiche, what have we seen with regard to the president's often disregard for guidelines from the CDC that masks be worn, that there be social distancing?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, this is a White House that has not abided by its own health guidances.

    The president has said that he does not like wearing masks, that he doesn't feel like he needs to wear them. He's had rally after rally where we have seen people shoulder to shoulder, not social distancing.

    Here at the White House, I can tell you, today, on a day where all of this news is breaking, we saw at least three officials without masks. That's the White House chief of staff, Larry Kudlow, a top White House economic adviser, as well as Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary.

    As they were talking to me, and as they were talking to other reporters, they were not masked. So, that underscores that this is a White House, even while it's in the midst of this outbreak, this issue that they're dealing with, this chaos, they are not still wearing masks.

    And I should also remark that I was here last Saturday, when the president rolled out Amy Coney Barrett as his nominee. There were people there, Cabinet members, who were standing shoulder to shoulder in the White House Rose Garden who were not wearing masks.

    So, there are a lot of critics of the president who say that was dangerous behavior, and that this was really inevitable that the White House would be a scene where people now have the coronavirus.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And to Lisa.

    Lisa, you have been covering Joe Biden. What does this mean for him? He shared the debate stage with the president just Tuesday night.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Judy, a Biden campaign official confirms to me that that campaign is taking down their negative ads about the president at this point. And they made that decision before the president was on his way to Walter Reed, just out of respect for the situation that he's facing.

    Biden himself was on the campaign trail today. Let's take a look at what he was doing. He was in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Judy, notably, wearing his mask during his entire set of remarks.

    Biden did say he has the Trump family in his prayers. But he also noted that he thinks that this is a time, an example to show that we need to fight the virus more effectively.

    On that note, Judy, another campaign official confirms to me that the campaign is worried about the Pence and Harris vice presidential debate set up for next week. They want to have greater distancing between those two candidates, from seven feet, which is what it is now. They would like 14 feet to feel safe.

    They want the Commission on Presidential Debates to enforce mask rules, which the commission did not enforce with last week's presidential debate.

    And one more thing, Judy. That official tells me, this idea of the presidential debate for October 15, they're not sure how that can happen, given the news regarding President Trump.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And just finally, quickly, Lisa, the president has been in touch with others around him, in touch with members of Congress.

    What are you learning about what this could mean for Congress and its work?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    It has been a very dramatic day on Capitol Hill, Judy.

    And one reason, Senator Mike Lee of Utah tested positive for the coronavirus this morning. I want to show you a photo of that event that Yamiche mentioned, the unveiling of Amy Coney Barrett as the president's nominee in the Rose Garden.

    Look at that audience. You see Senator Mike Lee with no mask directly behind Vice President Pence. Now, just a few days later, Mike Lee has tested positive for the coronavirus. He is home quarantining. I'm told he's fine. But he is experiencing symptoms.

    Judy, so, let's think about this. Mike Lee also met with Coney Barrett at the Capitol on Tuesday. She has now said that she has previously had the coronavirus and recovered. However, Lee was also yesterday, Judy, in a committee hearing, the Judiciary Committee, with fellow members of the Senate.

    And it's not clear all of them are getting tested, a very large concern at the Capitol. Coney Barrett's confirmation hearings. Judy, I am told, will go forward as planned in just over a week, even though Mike Lee, one of the members of that committee, has tested positive.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And we know what a priority that has been for the Trump administration.

    Lisa Desjardins, Yamiche Alcindor, we thank you both.

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