Instead of relying on experts, the White House is flying blind, putting itself in charge of determining how to keep Americans safe. To make matters worse, the failure to protect the President and Vice President Mike Pence doesn’t inspire much confidence that the administration is doing everything possible to protect the rest of us. It also undercuts the President’s assertions that it’s time to reopen the country because it’s clear that new infections are a reality — even in the White House.
More directly, this news threatens the functioning of our government. White House staff regularly work in close quarters in the East and West Wings, and in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next to the White House. Based on my experience working in a former closet in the West Wing — where I was two feet away from my closest colleagues — social distancing is not an option in the White House unless serious precautions are taken. Maintaining the six feet of distance recommended by the CDC is a luxury that staff just don’t have, absent extraordinary measures.
Staff members are also constantly interacting with each other and moving around the White House property to conduct meetings and brief their bosses. To top it off, staff regularly touch the same doorknobs or equipment, including classified and unclassified printers.
Both Miller and the valet pose a direct threat to the health of the Trump, Pence and so many other members of the White House and supporting personnel. The risks of contagion are very real — and contagion comes with direct costs for our national security. Unchecked community spread within the White House would be a catastrophic event. An incapacitated President or vice president would represent a major vulnerability in our executive branch, as would contagion among staff, who are essential to the functioning of our government. The fact that both the valet and Miller likely had sustained contact with numerous other staffers raises the real risk that personnel critical to undertaking key national security work could be sidelined and unable to do their jobs.
While we all hope that the valet and Miller make speedy recoveries — and that infection is limited — their cases expose the problems with the White House’s approach to Covid-19 guidelines.
Right now the White House needs to focus on crisis control — namely ensuring that the valet and Miller are treated appropriately and trying to track down anyone else who may be sick and spreading the virus. But the strategic threats that this news presents are ongoing, particularly if the White House does not take immediate steps to change their own measures to keep personnel safe.