CLEVELAND — Since President Donald Trump entered Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Friday, spokespeople and the president’s doctor have not answered questions about the date of the president’s last negative test for the coronavirus.
“I don't want to go backwards,” Dr. Sean Conley said Sunday when asked about the president’s last negative result.
Trump appeared at last week’s presidential debate, which took place in Cleveland two days before he tested positive. Campaigns were required to present negative test results for everyone who entered the debate hall with the candidates — potentially the president’s last negative test.
White House spokesperson Judd Deere told BuzzFeed News on Friday, after Trump’s diagnosis, that everyone who had traveled on Air Force One had been tested that day for the coronavirus, though he did not provide further details about the type of test or how that information was conveyed to the Cleveland Clinic. On Sunday, though, when asked whether the president was tested Tuesday before the debate, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany avoided a direct answer.
“Yeah, I'm not going to give you a detailed readout with timestamps every time the president is tested,” she told reporters at a briefing. “He's tested regularly, and the first positive test he's received was Thursday after he returned from Bedminster.”
Asked again Tuesday about whether the president was tested the day of the debate, a White House official said, “the president is tested regularly.” Pressed on the previous comment to BuzzFeed News about testing the day of the debate, the White House would not answer on the record. Trump’s campaign deferred questions to the White House.
The Cleveland Clinic, which cohosted last week’s debate and serves as a health adviser to the Commission on Presidential Debates, has not provided further details about what kind of test the president took or when — or if the Clinic was even privy to those details.
On Tuesday, Clinic officials confirmed that Trump’s campaign assured the Clinic that he had tested negative at some point during the 72 hours before last week’s debate. That means Trump (and Joe Biden) could have been tested as early as Saturday, Sept. 26, and still met the requirements for the debate. A source familiar with the process told BuzzFeed News that Biden tested negative on the Sunday before the debate.
If Trump was not tested on Wednesday, Sept. 30, that timeline could mean his last recent negative result was as late as Tuesday or as early as the day he held a Rose Garden ceremony to nominate Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the US Supreme Court. Several people, including sitting senators and the president of the University of Notre Dame, who attended that event have since tested positive for the coronavirus.
Knowing the timing of Trump’s last negative test is important to establish when the president was exposed to the coronavirus and when he may have become contagious, including at the debate. Typically, symptoms develop four to five days after a person is infected, though that “incubation period” can sometimes take up to two weeks. The date of the president’s last negative test would help shed some light on when there were last low levels of the virus detectable in his body.
Knowing the type of test that was used is also important. The rapid Abbott tests used by the White House are meant to be given within the first seven days of symptoms, and otherwise have a high rate of false negatives. PCR tests, which take longer to get results, are more accurate.
Though the media and other debate participants were required to test negative on site within 72 hours of the debate, the candidates and their entourages were allowed to abide by what debate moderator Chris Wallace and others have characterized as an “honor system.”
“The Cleveland Clinic required everyone entering the debate hall to have a negative COVID-19 test. This was also required by the White House medical team,” the Clinic said in an emailed statement Sunday night. “The campaigns had existing testing protocols, which were reviewed as part of the planning process in which the Cleveland Clinic, the Commission on Presidential Debates and the campaigns participated. After that review, it was agreed that the campaigns’ respective medical teams would be (1) responsible for testing their respective candidates and entourages, and (2) required to certify to the Clinic on the day of the debate that all of those individuals had been tested by their medical teams with a negative test result within the approved time period before the debate. Each campaign complied with this requirement.”
On Tuesday, responding to follow-up questions, a Clinic spokesperson confirmed that Trump, Biden, and their guests were held to the same 72-hour window that media and other debate attendees were. The spokesperson did not answer questions about the type of test Trump took or whether he was required to disclose the precise date and time of his last negative result.
Since news of Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis early Friday morning, Biden has tested negative at least four times, including twice Friday, after potentially being exposed to Trump at the debate, and most recently Tuesday. Biden’s campaign — which unlike Trump’s has adhered to strict social distancing and other safety guidelines during the pandemic — has pledged to release results from all of his future coronavirus tests.
Trump and Biden, spaced more than 12 feet apart, shared a stage indoors for more than 90 minutes at last week’s debate. A ventilation expert told BuzzFeed News last week that, at that distance, the risk of transmitting the virus was low if Trump was already infected.
Members of Trump’s traveling party removed their masks after entering the debate hall and resisted efforts by Clinic employees to wear them while seated. Several people who accompanied the president that day have also since tested positive, including McEnany, first lady Melania Trump, senior aide Hope Hicks, and campaign manager Bill Stepien. Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who helped prepare Trump for the debate but did not travel with him to Cleveland, was hospitalized over the weekend after testing positive for the coronavirus. These family members and advisers were in close physical proximity to Trump the prior weekend, including the events surrounding Barrett’s nomination and debate strategy sessions.