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Trump's 'reckless' New Jersey fundraiser is under state review

The president’s decision to attend the event despite his exposure to COVID-19 has also drawn attention to the White House’s limited contact tracing efforts.
Image: Donald Trump
President Donald Trump arrives at Morristown Municipal Airport to attend a fundraiser at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster in Morristown, N.J., on Oct. 1, 2020.Evan Vucci / AP

In the hours after a top aide tested positive for COVID-19 last week, President Donald Trump ignored federal health guidelines to quarantine and instead attended a fundraiser in New Jersey, where he spoke — without a mask — to more than 200 supporters.

The event, at Trump’s golf course in the tony town of Bedminster, is now being investigated by state officials looking into whether it violated New Jersey’s COVID-19 restrictions on large gatherings.

“That trip was completely unacceptable, completely reckless and uncalled for,” New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, said Monday.

Some locals are up in arms. Area private schools have sent out “urgent” emails informing students to stay home if their parents attended the fundraiser.

The president’s decision to attend the Oct. 1 event in light of Hope Hicks’s coronavirus diagnosis underscores his laissez-faire attitude toward the deadly virus. It has also raised scrutiny of the White House’s commitment to contact tracing, the practice of alerting people when they have been exposed to the virus and emphasizing the need to self-quarantine.

Contact tracing is seen as a critical tool in fighting the spread of a highly contagious disease like the coronavirus.

But the measures taken in the wake of Trump’s diagnosis last week have been haphazard at best. The White House has failed to take an active role, or in some cases any role, in tracing for at least four separate events in four separate locations across the country – potentially affecting hundreds of people – according to state officials, public health experts and people who attended events with the president.

“I’m deeply concerned that there appears to be no system in place,” said Dr. Howard Koh, a professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, who was assistant secretary of health and human services in the Obama administration.

Trump announced his positive COVID-19 diagnosis just before 1 a.m. last Friday, Oct. 2. Hicks was diagnosed earlier in the day on Thursday, Oct. 1.

The president was aware of Hicks's positive test when he traveled to his New Jersey golf course, according to chief of staff Mark Meadows. Trump greeted and took pictures with about 60 VIPs inside before addressing a larger crowd outdoors, according to one guest.

“He appeared to be very happy and in good health,” said Charlie Kolean, 25, who traveled from Dallas to attend the fundraiser.

Two days after the event, the White House and Republican National Committee handed over names and emails of the more than 200 attendees and reported whether each individual was believed to have been within six feet of Trump at any time.

But New Jersey health officials told the White House Medical Unit that information wasn’t enough, and they needed phone numbers and addresses as is standard for effective contact tracing, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Gov. Murphy on Monday said local health officials had made contact with 184 of the 206 attendees at Trump’s fundraiser, but he expressed dismay over the lack of assistance from the federal government.

“The lead has clearly been New Jersey on this, even for folks who were not from New Jersey,” Murphy said.

Murphy said officials are examining whether the event violated state guidelines that indoor political events must be limited to 150 people or 25% of a room’s capacity, whichever is lower. If it’s determined the event organizers failed to comply with the guidelines, the matter will be turned over to the state attorney general, Murphy said.

One area private school, Far Hills Country Day, sent an “urgent message” requesting that students stay home if their parents spent time at the Trump National Golf Course between Sept. 30 and Oct. 2. Another school, Gill St. Bernard’s, sent an email advising anyone who attended the event to self-quarantine.

“Our schools have enough to contend with,” one parent told NBC News. “Now they have to send out urgent messages asking parents to quarantine if they went to a Trump rally. How is this not the government’s responsibility?”

A spokesman for Murphy, Dan Bryan, said Tuesday the steps taken by the schools “underscore the need for far more contact tracing cooperation from Trump National Golf Club and the White House.”

“It’s no exaggeration to say that lives are at risk as they continue to drag their feet,” Bryan said.

White House spokesman Judd Deere defended the contact tracing assistance provided to New Jersey officials.

“A full contact tracing, consistent with CDC guidelines, was completed for the Bedminster, NJ trip,” Deere has said. “The President did not have any interactions with Bedminster staff or guests that would be considered to be ‘close’ based on CDC guidelines (more than 15 minutes and within 6 feet).”

In a statement, the Republican National Committee said it provided the names and contact information of all the attendees to Murphy’s staff and “emailed all of the attendees in the morning letting them know of the president’s positive results in case they hadn’t seen the news.”

A representative for the Trump National Golf Club declined to comment.

The federal government has done even less in providing contact tracing assistance in the wake of the events Trump attended on Sept. 30: a rally and private fundraiser in Minnesota, according to state health officials.

Trump’s Minnesota trip began with a private fundraiser at a lakefront home in the Minneapolis suburb of Shorewood, attended by about 40 guests, according to local reports.

He went on to speak to several thousand people at an outdoor rally at the Duluth Airport, though the president remained at a distance from the crowd.

A spokesman for the Minnesota Health Department told NBC News on Monday that the agency has received no information from the White House or the Republican National Committee.

“We will do contact tracing of any Minnesota residents who may have had close contact with the president or first lady if and when we receive any names from the White House, the Republican National Committee or other event hosts, or any other health department that has interviewed a positive case and identified a MN resident as a close contact,” Minnesota Department of Health spokesman Doug Schultz said in a Monday statement to NBC News.

“That is standard public health protocol.”

Schultz said he believes the media attention sparked by Trump’s diagnosis has helped ease the need for contact tracing as anyone who has been in close contact with the president would likely already be aware of his diagnosis.

But Dr. Joia Mukherjee – the chief medical officer at Partners in Health, a medical charity that is assisting in contact tracing efforts in Massachusetts and several other places in the U.S. – said its purpose goes beyond informing people they may have come into contact with someone who has the virus. Contact tracers also emphasize the importance of quarantining at home for 14 days and can help people navigate the process.

“Each and every contact needs to be out of commission for 14 days,” said Mukherjee.

“The problem is people know Trump was infected but they still may not know their individual risk because of the terrible mixed messages, and the wrong messages, the White House has sent out,” she added.

In response to a question about Minnesota contact tracing efforts, a Republican National Committee spokesperson said, “They never asked us for information.”

The presidential debate was held on Sept. 29 at Case Western University in Cleveland. At least 11 people involved in the debate preparations tested positive for COVID-19, officials said, but none of them attended the debate itself.

In an episode that drew wide attention, Trump’s family members declined a request from a Cleveland Clinic staffer to wear masks during the debate after they took off the ones they had been wearing when they walked into the event space.

The Cleveland Clinic, when asked Monday whether there have been efforts to contact people who may have been in contact with the president or members of his inner circle, said it’s reaching out to debate guests to address any questions or concerns they may have.

“Based on what we know about the virus and the safety measures we had in place, we believe there is low risk of exposure to our guests,” a spokesperson said.

Case Western Reserve University, which hosted the event, did not respond to a request for comment.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican who spent time with Trump aboard Air Force One last week, has said he has no knowledge of the state working with the White House to do contact tracing in the wake of the debate. DeWine’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who helped Trump prepare for the debate, announced last Saturday that he tested posted for the virus. Christie, who is an ABC News political analyst, was later hospitalized.

In the wake of the positive test, ABC News said any staff members who had direct contact with Christie “as defined by the CDC” will self-isolate for 14 days.

Six days before the president revealed his diagnosis, he hosted a Rose Garden ceremony to announce Amy Coney Barrett as his nominee to replace the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court.

At least eight people who attended the event have since tested positive, including former top Trump aide Kellyanne Conway.

Michael Shear, a reporter with the New York Times who attended the event and has tested positive for the virus, said Monday that he has yet to hear from any White House officials.

“Nobody from the White House has said boo and asked anything about where I was or who I talked to or who else I might have infected,” Shear, whose wife has also contracted the virus, told CNN. I think that just shows you they’re not taking it seriously, at least as it pertains to themselves.”

The New York Times reported Monday that the White House has decided not to do contact tracing related to the Rose Garden event.

“The White House has a robust contact tracing program in place led by the White House Medical Unit with CDC personnel and guidance,” White House spokesman Brian Morgenstern said in response to an NBC News request for comment about the report.

“The goal of contact tracing is to stop ongoing transmission. Contact tracing begins when someone tests positive or develops symptoms and goes back 48 hours.”