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As U.S. reopening barrels along, 'hidden enemy' infiltrates White House


WASHINGTON — Donald Trump's "hidden enemy" has made its way to the West Wing, where COVID-19 threatens not only the health of people working inside the White House, but the president's entire strategy for restoring the U.S. economy — to say nothing of his re-election hopes.

Three top health officials — including infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Robert Redfield, the head of the Centers for Disease Control — were keeping their distance from others Monday after an aide to Vice-President Mike Pence and a personal valet to the president both tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

But it was full steam ahead Monday for Trump, who shrugged off the risk of infection inside the White House as he announced an $11-billion plan to finance a national network of testing for the virus — a cornerstone of the administration's plan to meet what he called a growing push among Americans to get back to work.

"I don't think the system broke down at all," he said, even as he acknowledged a new policy requiring everyone within the West Wing to wear a mask, a policy he said he himself instituted. Of the "hundreds and hundreds" of people who work in the building, finding a single positive case represents success, he said.

"It can happen. It's the hidden enemy — remember that, it's the hidden enemy. Things happen," Trump said. "Because we're running a country, we want to keep our country running, so we have a lot of people coming in and out. ... I felt no vulnerability."

White House staffers are tested regularly, he added — but when pressed on the fact that ordinary Americans don't have the same access to testing, he insisted the U.S. is leading the world in testing capacity and suggested reporters would be up in arms if administration officials weren't getting regular tests.

Both the president and the vice-president have been forgoing wearing face masks in public — Pence during a visit last week to a COVID-19 research centre at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, and Trump while visiting an actual face mask manufacturing facility in Arizona.  

But Canadian political leaders have hardly been modelling perfect behaviour themselves, said Peter Loewen, a political science professor at the University of Toronto.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did wear a face mask at the repatriation ceremony those killed in the Cyclone helicopter crash, but he also got in trouble for some interprovincial travel to his official country residence at Harrington Lake in Quebec, last month. Ontario Premier Doug Ford came under fire for a quick trip to his Muskoka cottage that same weekend to check on the plumbing.

Green parliamentary leader Elizabeth May and Liberal cabinet minister Carla Qualtrough joined Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer and his family last month for a trip back to Ottawa on board a government jet in order to take part in an important vote on emergency legislation.

It's human nature to see one or two people flouting the rules and assume incorrectly that they represent a larger segment of the population than they actually do, Loewen said — a form of innumeracy that he called a "normal deficiency of human psychology."

But it's even more pronounced when the person is a prominent societal leader, given how many more people see such figures when they are playing a public role, he said. And recent research in the U.S. suggests that supporters tend to model behaviour they see in politicians who hail from their side of the political spectrum.

"I suspect that not seeing Trump wearing a mask and seeing that he's defiant around it is increasing the defiance of Republicans," Loewen said.

Officials in the Prime Minister's Office did not respond to media inquiries Monday about the measures the PMO is taking to mitigate the threat of infection and spread. But Trudeau himself has been working — and speaking — from home for nearly two months, while cabinet ministers keep their distance from one another at daily briefings.

Committee meetings have been taking place via videoconference, and the House of Commons is having only one in-person sitting, with a reduced number of MPs, every week.

In the White House, by comparison, both Trump and Pence, as well as their staff, have been cavalier about the very precautions they've been urging Americans to take against the virus, said Brett Bruen, a former U.S. diplomat and White House adviser under Barack Obama.

"The notion that somehow, the president and the vice-president can continue to publicly swagger about without even a modicum of precaution — not only for themselves, but for their employees — is just unfathomable," Bruen said.

"It's the notion, for someone who knows how few people run our national security structure, that you would put any of them, let alone all of them, in danger because you don't want to follow some simple steps is a alarming and an astounding choice for the commander in chief and his deputy."

Inside the West Wing, where people work in close, cramped quarters, taking protective measures can be seen as a sign of disloyalty, he added.

"You would be seen as less than loyal to the president," Bruen said. "This issue has been so hyper-politicized, we're in a situation now that to be a true 'Trumper' you have to eschew certain health guidelines."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 11, 2020.

— Follow James McCarten on Twitter @CdnPressStyle

James McCarten , The Canadian Press

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