WASHINGTON – More than 130 Secret Service officers who help protect the White House and the president when he travels have recently been ordered to isolate or quarantine because they tested positive for the coronavirus or had close contact with infected co-workers, according to three people familiar with agency staffing.
The spread of the coronavirus – which has sidelined roughly 10 percent of the agency’s core security team – is believed to be partly linked to a series of campaign rallies that President Donald Trump held in the weeks before the Nov. 3 election, according to the people, who, like others interviewed for this report, spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the situation.
The outbreak comes as coronavirus cases have been rapidly rising across the nation, with more than 152,000 new cases reported Thursday.
The virus is having a dramatic impact on the Secret Service’s presidential security unit at the same time that growing numbers of prominent Trump campaign allies and White House officials have fallen ill in the wake of campaign events, where many attendees did not wear masks.
Among those who are infected are White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and outside political advisers Corey Lewandowski and David Bossie.
In addition, at least eight staffers at the Republican National Committee, including Chief of Staff Richard Walters, have the virus, according to officials at the organization. Some of those infected are in field offices across the country, including Pennsylvania, where some believe they were exposed in large staff gatherings, an official said.
White House spokesman Judd Deere said the administration takes “every case seriously.” He referred questions about the Secret Service outbreak to agency officials. A spokeswoman for the Secret Service declined to comment.
Trump went on a travel blitz in the final stretch of the campaign, making five campaign stops on each of the last two days. On Nov. 2, Trump’s campaign schedule required five separate groups of Secret Service officers – each numbering 20 to several dozen – to travel to Fayetteville, N.C.; Scranton, Pa.; Traverse City, Mich.; and Kenosha and Grand Rapids, Wis.; to screen spectators and secure the perimeter around the president’s events. President-elect Joe Biden made two campaign stops that day that also required Secret Service protection, but in smaller numbers.
The agency is also examining whether some portion of the current infections are not travel-related, one government official said, but instead trace back to the site where many Secret Service officers report for duty each day: the White House.
White House staff largely eschew wearing masks, despite public health guidelines that they help contain the spread of the virus, and some Secret Service officers on duty at the complex have also been seen without them.
The Secret Service employs roughly 1,300 officers in its Uniformed Division to guard the White House and the vice president’s residence. The officers are also the backbone of security for presidential trips out of town and other official events.
Earlier this week, agency supervisors told other staff about the large number of officers who have contracted the virus and said there has been expanded testing to help limit the spread, according to the people familiar with the situation.
The number of officers who have been pulled off duty creates a major stress on an already overworked team and will force many officers to forgo days off and work longer hours to compensate for absent co-workers. A 2015 blue-ribbon panel identified overworked Secret Service officers as one key factor that contributed to security breaches at the White House.
“Being down more than 100 officers is very problematic,” said one former senior Secret Service supervisor. “That does not bode well for White House security.”
It’s not the first time the Secret Service has been hit hard by the decisions of Trump and Vice President Mike Pence to travel during the pandemic. This summer, dozens of Secret Service agents fell ill or were sidelined and forced to quarantine in the wake of the president’s massive indoor stadium rally in Tulsa in June and the vice president’s subsequent trip to Arizona.
At the time, Secret Service spokesman Catherine Milhoan said in a statement to The Washington Post that the agency “continues to methodically assess the unique requirements necessary to operate in the ongoing pandemic environment.”
But many of Trump’s own choices put his protection team at heightened risk, specifically his choice to travel out of state and hold large public events. Secret Service agents and medical professionals were shocked early last month when Trump – then being treated at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for the coronavirus – insisted on taking a ride outside the hospital to wave to supporters from inside a government sport-utility vehicle. He wore a cloth mask, but many feared he was unnecessarily endangering the Secret Service agents inside the vehicle.
Deere defended the outing at the time, telling reporters “appropriate precautions were taken in the execution of this movement to protect the president and all those supporting it.” He said precautions included personal protective equipment, without elaborating, and said the trip “was cleared by the medical team as safe to do.”
While many people in Trump’s orbit have contracted the virus this year, the most recent outbreak at the White House has been particularly extensive. Many of those who are now sick attended a campaign party last week in the East Room, or were exposed to someone who did.
Meadows was among those in the East Room of the White House when Trump gave remarks around 3 a.m. Wednesday to a crowd of about 150 of his top aides, donors and allies, as well as family members. During that event, Meadows worked the room extensively, without a mask, speaking to dozens.
More than a dozen White House aides have tested positive for the virus in the past week, including a range of low-level assistants and secretaries, officials said. Offices that have been affected include political affairs, legislative affairs and communications.
Meadows’s positive diagnosis was revealed last week, along with the fact that he had urged staffers not to disclose it. The chief of staff is not expected to return to the office until next week, a person close to him said.
People present at Wednesday night’s campaign party in the East Room who were around Meadows, Lewandowski and other now-sick staffers say they have not been contacted by the White House.
Several staffers said they were nervous about going to work because there has been such an outbreak. “I’m trying to work from home,” one senior administration official said Wednesday afternoon. “It’s not really safe to be in there right now.”
Several aides said they were frustrated by a lack of transparency from their superiors, particularly Meadows, and that they did not notify more people of diagnoses.