WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump attempted to claim victory over the coronavirus Monday as he returned to a White House increasingly hollowed out by the disease, with infections among staffers continuing to spread amid widespread confusion.
"I will be leaving the great Walter Reed Medical Center today at 6:30 P.M. Feeling really good!" he tweeted shortly before making a dramatic exit through the front doors of the hospital, pumping his fist to cameras. "Don't be afraid of Covid. Don't let it dominate your life. We have developed, under the Trump Administration, some really great drugs & knowledge. I feel better than I did 20 years ago!"
Upon returning to the White House, Trump took off his mask before posing for a photo opportunity as Marine One took off.
Back inside the West Wing, the mood was less triumphant. "Folks are dropping like flies over here," a White House official said. "S--- is very crazy."
Normally a hive of activity, the White House press office was dark and deserted Monday morning, even before press secretary Kayleigh McEnany revealed that she had tested positive for the virus. In one area, the lights hadn't been turned on. In another section, where about half a dozen staffers usually sit tightly grouped together as top administration officials stream in and out, just one aide had come in to work.
McEnany joined a string of aides and allies who have tested positive in recent days as the White House has become a center for a coronavirus outbreak affecting low-level aides to senators and some of Trump's closest advisers, like former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who is in a hospital.
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Trump and his allies have looked to reframe the narrative around his diagnosis, pushing an image of the president as a "warrior" battling the virus and arguing that his newly acquired firsthand experience with the illness gives him an advantage over Democratic nominee Joe Biden.
At the same time, they tried to project a sense of normalcy, issuing images of Trump working from the hospital even as his doctors and top officials detailed drops in his oxygen level and an aggressive course of therapy.
Trump is expected to remain in the residence, where he will receive constant care and monitoring by White House medical staff, and not head to the West Wing until he is cleared by doctors, said a person familiar with the plans.
Trump's earlier tweet that he planned to leave the hospital, hours after the revelation that McEnany and two of her deputies had tested positive, had left West Wing staffers feeling almost entirely in the dark as the outbreak continued to spread, a White House official said.
While the press office was nearly deserted Monday, on Friday a group of more than half a dozen officials, including White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, had gathered in McEnany's office in cloth masks for about an hour.
Staff members aren't consistently being informed through official channels or contact tracers about new confirmed cases among people with whom they work directly, instead learning about new cases "through word of mouth or from you guys" — the media — said the official, who was unaware that two of McEnany's deputies had tested positive until informed by a reporter.
Another official working at the White House on Monday was unclear whether they counted as a close contact of McEnany's and said they were awaiting guidance on whether they should go home. A number of staff members decided on their own not to come in.
"Because we've had some cases in the West Wing, more people are working remotely today than in previous days, and that's the way the process is supposed to work," White House deputy communications director Brian Morgenstern told reporters Monday afternoon. "When a case is identified, if people are thinking they may be potentially exposed, you step up precautions."
Top administration officials have remained "confused" over the lack of information they are getting, said a person familiar with the situation. They described Meadows' contradiction of White House doctors over the weekend as "inexplicable."
"Literally no one knows, but everyone was furious," the person said.
The main instruction from officials has been that staff members should talk to their managers if they want to work from home but that not all who prefer to work from home will be able to do so. Essential workers are still expected to show up in person — a category that includes some operational and senior staff members in the West Wing, as well as a large part of the National Security Council staff, many of whom deal with classified information and need access to a secure facility to do their jobs.
None of the handful of staffers spotted around the West Wing on Monday morning had on masks, except for cleaning staff and the Secret Service agents who still stood at their posts along hallways.
But a number of staff members were seen in masks going in and out of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building adjacent to the White House — a significant change from the previous week, when, a staff member who was there Thursday said, no one had been wearing a mask.
It wasn't until Sunday, nearly three days after Trump announced that he had tested positive, that the first campuswide communication went out to White House staff members, repeating the advice the White House has been giving for months and telling them to stay home if they aren't feeling well.
It made no acknowledgement of current developments and told staffers that they "should not go to the White House Medical Unit clinic for any Covid-19 testing inquiries."
White House communications director Alyssa Farah said in a tweet that staff members have continued to work in the office despite the growing number of cases because senior White House officials are "deemed Essential Personnel by CDC & DHS. This means they are expected to continue to work — while taking precautions — until a medical recommendation otherwise is given."
Olivia Troye, a former top aide to Vice President Mike Pence who was involved in the coronavirus task force, said the internal dynamic fueling staffers' concerns had been inevitable.
"This is the culture inside the White House. It's a culture of paranoia, a culture of fear," Troye said on MSNBC. "Quite frankly, it's a lack of transparency that happens on a daily basis even amongst the White House staff. What you're watching is a breach in protocols."