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New Scrutiny On Trump's Gold Star Family Event After COVID-19 Outbreak

Oct 8, 2020
Originally published on October 9, 2020 7:54 am

A growing list of attendees to a reception last month for President Trump's Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett have tested positive for coronavirus.

But the next day, the annual Gold Star Mother's Day event was held indoors at the White House, and official photos from the reception show very few people wearing masks.

Gold Star Mother's Day has been around since the 1930s, but was highlighted recently by Presidents Obama and Trump with White House receptions. Despite this year's event landing in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the White House decided not to cancel it. President Trump says when he met these family members and heard their stories, he couldn't bear to keep them at arms-length.

"They come within an inch of my face sometimes, they want to hug me, and they want to kiss me. And they do. And, frankly, I'm not telling them to back up. I'm not doing it. But I did say it's like, it's obviously dangerous, it's a dangerous thing I guess if you go by the COVID thing," Trump told Fox Business on Thursday.

The family of United States Marine Capt. Jesse Melton III poses for a photo with President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump during the reception.
Andrea Hanks / White House

Days after the event, the president and first lady tested positive. Vice Commandant of the Coast Guard Admiral Charles Ray was also at the Gold Star reception. Later he too had a positive test. Now, more than a week later, the Joint Chiefs of Staff are in quarantine. One more of them is known to have tested positive, Assistant Marine Commandant Gen. Gary Thomas.

About 20 Gold star families were in attendance from all over the country. They were given rapid COVID tests before entering the event, but there is some controversy around the accuracy of those tests.

The White House later clarified that the president wasn't blaming anyone present for him getting the virus. He has been at many events, talking to many people, according to spokeswoman Alyssa Farah who said there is no evidence that anyone became sick from that event.

"We did take a lot of precautions for that event," Farah said. "So based on contact tracing, the data we have, we don't think it arose from that event."

On Wednesday, White House deputy press secretary Brian Morgenstern said the White House only traces contacts of people who are diagnosed by the White House Medical Unit, he said, and then under a specific guideline.

"They look back 48 hours to find people who may have been within 6-feet for at least 15 minutes," he explained. "It's the CDC guideline. And the purpose is to mitigate further transmission of the virus. It's not to go back and identify Patient Zero."

The White House defended holding these events indoors, saying the president needs to continue the business of government.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

We still don't know where President Trump contracted the coronavirus. Today Trump himself said he figured there would be a chance he might catch it because of the events he's continued to hold during the pandemic - events including a September 27 private reception for Gold Star mothers, the mothers of Americans killed at war. That event was the day after the now infamous Rose Garden reception for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett. Many of the Rose Garden attendees have since tested positive for the virus. NPR's Quil Lawrence covers veterans for us. He's here now.

Hey, Quil.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Tell me a little bit more about this Gold Star mothers event, why it's drawing so much attention now.

LAWRENCE: So every last Sunday in September is Gold Star Mother's Day. That's been around for about 80 years. But it's been highlighted recently by President Obama and President Trump with some White House receptions. President Trump talked about that event today, saying that he just hasn't put himself in a bubble despite the risks of the virus. And he said - this is what he said about when he meets those families who have lost (inaudible).

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: They come within an inch of my face sometimes. They want to hug me, and they want to kiss me. And they do. And frankly, I'm not telling them to back up. I'm not doing it. But I did say it's like - you know, it's obviously dangerous. It's a dangerous thing, I guess, if you go by the COVID thing.

LAWRENCE: So the White House later attempted to clarify that the president wasn't blaming anyone present for him getting the virus. And we don't know if anyone became sick from that event, but some officials who were there later tested positive. And also at that event were senior officials, including Admiral Charles Ray, the vice commandant of the Coast Guard. Ray would test positive more than a week later. Pentagon officials say he may have been exposed - or he may have exposed members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to the virus at Pentagon meetings. And now they're all in quarantine. So we know of at least one positive case out of those Pentagon meetings, which is four-star General Gary Thomas.

KELLY: Quil, what are the Gold Star families who were at this event - what are they saying? Have they reacted to those comments from the president about - you know, they want to get within an inch of me; they want to kiss me?

LAWRENCE: Well, I've reached out to a few of them, and I haven't heard back. About 20 Gold Star families were in attendance from all over the country. They got rapid COVID tests before entering the event. There's some controversy about how accurate those quick tests are, but they all tested negative. On Facebook, I've seen - been able to find a couple of families who were at the event, and they've posted - offering prayers for the president, first lady's recovery from COVID. One of those attendees said he'd gotten tested and was self-isolating out of caution.

KELLY: Now, it seems the White House is not doing contact tracing for everyone who was either at the Rose Garden event on Saturday or the Gold Star reception on Sunday. Why not?

LAWRENCE: That's right. The White House deputy press secretary, Brian Morgenstern, told us that they only trace patients diagnosed by the White House medical unit, and they follow a very specific guideline.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRIAN MORGENSTERN: They look back 48 hours to find people who may have been within six feet for at least 15 minutes. That's the CDC guideline. And the purpose is to mitigate further transmission of the virus. It's not to go back and identify patient zero.

LAWRENCE: And as to why they are holding indoor events with no masks, with families of fallen troops, some of whom are elderly, the president has said he needs to continue the business of government.

KELLY: All right. Quil Lawrence - he covers veterans for NPR. Thanks, Quil.

LAWRENCE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.