Q&A: CMC Professor John Pitney on the COVID-19 outbreak at the White House

A man sitting in front of a desk with a computer and books on top of it
Claremont McKenna College government professor John J. Pitney speaks with TSL about the consequences of the White House COVID-19 outbreak. (Amy Best • The Student Life)

President Donald Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis took the country by storm when it was announced Oct. 1. After numerous other White House staff members tested positive for the virus, TSL spoke with Claremont McKenna College politics professor John J. Pitney Jr. for an expert opinion on the consequences of the outbreak.

The interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

TSL: What happened within the last week at the White House?

JP: Many members of the White House staff along with those who have spent time in the White House tested positive for COVID-19 and are displaying symptoms. While it is unclear exactly where the outbreak occurred, there is some speculation that it stemmed from the event at which the president announced the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett for Supreme Court justice. More recently, however, the president seemed to blame a Gold Star family for giving him the virus. He made a comment suggesting well, “when they come and hug you, you can’t push them away.” So, it is rather odd that the president would blame Gold Star families for this outbreak. But that is where we are.

TSL: What is the importance of this outbreak?

JP: In this case, the White House has been reckless about maintaining social distancing and using masks. The president has mocked the use of masks in public — he mocked Joe Biden who wore a mask. A reporter asked him a question with a mask on and he asked him to take it off, accusing him of being politically correct. The recklessness of the White House, regarding the spread of COVID-19, has allowed it to become a hot spot for the illness.

TSL: What are the health implications of an outbreak at the White House? How will this affect high-level staff differently than it affects White House service workers?

JP: The service workers could contract the virus as well. I don’t know if we have any data on that. But they are at risk. Their lives are just as valuable as those high-level White House employees. Though the president doesn’t seem to care about them.

TSL: What are the national security implications of a White House outbreak?

JP: The national security implications are pretty clear — the joint chiefs of staff have had to isolate. Although they can do their jobs remotely, it is not an ideal situation where major leaders of the uniformed armed services are affected by this outbreak.

TSL: What message does this White House outbreak send?

The message it should send is “wear a mask.” However, the message that the President is sending is “don’t be afraid of COVID,” which is exactly the wrong message.

TSL: What are the likely political consequences of a White House outbreak? How will this impact the election?

JP: It will most probably hurt President Trump. Normally, people would sympathize with a president who has been hospitalized. But, this is the first time we have had a hospitalized president carelessly spread the disease to others. This is yet another crisis and symptom of Trump’s lack of concern for other people. And this one is breaking through — their polling data indicates that senior citizens, in particular, are turning away from Trump which makes sense as senior citizens are especially vulnerable to COVID. So, this just amplifies the effect of the COVID crisis on Trump’s political fortunes. At this point, it looks like if the election were held today, Trump would lose and lose big. 

TSL: How will this affect the opposing side’s campaign?

JP: We have already seen its effects on Biden’s campaign — Joe Biden posted a short social media post, juxtaposing footage of Trump taking off his mask with footage of Joe Biden putting one on. We’re gonna hear a lot more in the days ahead about the cost of Trump’s recklessness. The problem for him is that he wanted to talk about anything except COVID. He wanted to talk about the Supreme Court. He wanted to talk about crime. This outbreak has directed public attention to an issue on which he is uniquely vulnerable.

TSL: How do you see this affecting the economy?

JP: The White House spread will probably not have a large effect on the economy. Obviously, however, the pandemic is having an enormous impact on the economy and the administration’s failure to deal effectively with COVID has cost many jobs and put many people out of business. That damage will last for a long time to come.

TSL: Is there anything else that you would like to add?

JP: One of the victims of the White House outbreak is Claremont McKenna College alum Michael Shear [CM ’90] who works for The New York Times as a White House correspondent. He tested positive for COVID-19 after being in the White House. Apparently, his symptoms don’t seem to be severe — I’ve been in touch with him, and he’s still able to work. But, it is never good when you get a positive COVID test.

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