President Donald Trump’s loyal supporters who attended fundraisers he held this week are finding themselves in an unthinkable scenario: Could they have caught the coronavirus from the president?
Trump announced early Friday morning that he and his wife Melania had tested positive for the virus, mere hours after he had appeared at a fundraiser and roundtable with supporters at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey. The previous day, Trump had held another fundraiser in Shorewood, Minnesota.
It is unclear when Trump contracted the virus. His aide Hope Hicks, who traveled with him on Wednesday, was revealed to have tested positive on Thursday — a fact Trump is said to have known about before he continued with his plan to go to Bedminster. Even so, the president came into relatively close contact with dozens of people at the event, all of whom are now at risk. And as of Friday afternoon, Trump was being transported to Walter Reed Medical Center, where, according to the White House press secretary, he will be spending the “next few days.”
In Bedminster, Trump spoke to attendees at length and without a mask, posed for photos, and held a VIP meeting with a smaller group indoors, again unmasked. In Shorewood, after the president left the event, attendees sang karaoke and put their arms around each other, also without masks. It took until late on Friday morning for the Bedminster organizers to follow up with attendees about Trump’s test result — and even then, they did not encourage them to immediately get tested or quarantine themselves. Multiple attendees who spoke with BuzzFeed News said they trusted the president and his campaign and were confident they would not disregard their safety.
Trump landed at Bedminster at 2:33 p.m. on Thursday, several hours before confirming on Fox News that Hicks, who had traveled with him on Air Force One en route to a rally in Duluth, Minnesota, on Wednesday, had tested positive for the coronavirus.
Waiting to greet him was a crowd of supporters on the corner near the golf course. Joseph Belnome, a Belleville, New Jersey, resident who works for the state’s Department of Public Works, was among them. Belnome, who described himself as a “major supporter” of the president — “when you attack him, it feels like you’re attacking me” — said he’d learned the night before that Trump would be coming and that the presidential motorcade might pass by. Trump has on occasion gotten out of his motorcade before entering the Bedminster grounds to greet people waiting for him there, which has inspired local supporters to assemble when he’s in town.
Belnome estimated that around 150 people had gathered to greet the president outside the event, as well as 10 members of the “opposition,” how he described anti-Trump protesters. He said that four or five people among the Trump supporters were wearing masks, while the anti-Trump protesters all “had masks and face shields, just unrealistic coverings.”
Donors entering the event had to take a COVID-19 test before going inside and were asked to stay 6 feet away from Trump. One attendee who asked not to be named estimated that around 60 people had taken photos with Trump, though they were kept 6 feet away from him even during the photos.
Trump seemed “very happy” and “healthy,” the attendee said; “he took a ton of questions from the crowd and personally knew many of the attendees.” This attendee said they planned to get tested and quarantine until knowing the results.
Another attendee, Patti Schechter, also posted on Instagram about the event, writing “Absolutely amazing day having my photo taken with the GOAT, President Trump!!! And then 20 feet front and center while he addressed the crowd and took questions.”
Replying to someone’s comment on her page asking if the event was from yesterday, Schechter said it was but she “never got close” to Trump. She has since made her page private and did not respond to requests for comment.
Joe Piscopo, a New Jersey radio host who attended the fundraiser, said it was “outside and socially distanced, and the President was at the front of the portico at Bedminster and we were far back, way way back. They put everybody back. They kept everyone far away. It had to be 10 yards at least, maybe 20 yards.”
Piscopo, who has known Trump for decades, said that the president called him a “good friend” during his remarks at the event. He said he left feeling inspired and said he expected the president to win by a landslide. Still, Piscopo didn’t attend the smaller VIP event — “I was standing at the back with the sanitizers and masks,” he said. Piscopo said he has COVID-19 antibodies and had also at one point taken hydroxychloroquine “as the president said.”
The VIP roundtable was held inside, photos posted to Instagram show. Brandon Dawson and Natalie Workman, a couple who are both executives at a consulting firm, posted photos of themselves inside a room at Bedminster across a table from a place card indicating Trump’s spot. In replies to comments on his post on Friday morning, Dawson wrote that he and Workman had both been tested and were negative, though such an early test result after an exposure would not be likely to give complete results. Workman and Dawson didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Dr. Richard Roberts, a retired New Jersey pharmaceutical executive and Republican donor, attended the smaller roundtable. “I was about 5 or 6 feet away from [Trump],” Roberts said. He said the gathering took place in a “small draped tent, inside the building for a little discussion, and then a photo. And then I was about 10 feet away from him. Right across the table, that rectangular-shaped table, from him for about an hour or so of the meeting with him.” Roberts said he was among a group of 19 people who were in the smaller meeting.
Roberts echoed others in saying that those who took a photo with Trump were kept at a distance from the president.
For Roberts, the fundraiser was a rare outing. He said he had been in self-imposed quarantine for six months because he has a number of risk factors for the virus, and the fundraiser was one of only four times he has left his property during that time. He said he was not going to get tested and would simply resume his quarantine, but that he was starting to take hydroxychloroquine. Roberts said Trump did not show signs of being sick during the event and did not cough or sneeze.
On Friday morning, Trump Victory Committee, the joint RNC and Trump campaign fundraising body that sponsored the Bedminster event, wrote to attendees to alert them to their possible exposure to coronavirus because of Trump, according to a copy of the email provided to BuzzFeed News by an attendee. A similar email was sent to attendees of the fundraiser in Shorewood, according to an RNC spokesperson.
The email notified attendees that Trump had tested positive for the coronavirus and it was reaching out to them “out of an abundance of caution,” and reminded them that guests had not been allowed to come closer than 6 feet from Trump.
Trump Victory did not urge recipients of the email to preemptively quarantine or get tested. “Please contact your medical provider if you or any of your loved ones is ill or develops a fever, shortness of breath, or other respiratory symptoms,” the email, which was first reported by CNBC, read.
In a news conference on Friday, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy urged anyone who had been “in or around” the Bedminster event to self-quarantine and get tested. He emphasized quarantining first, then getting tested, and told people to stay quarantined for 14 days even if they get a negative test. He said the state’s effort to trace the contacts of the people who went to the event had begun, and that “folks are cooperating and we need them to.” Murphy said the White House and the RNC “put forward a spirit of serious cooperation.” He said his “guess” was that the event had drawn people from all over the region, and potentially out of state, thus posing a risk to communities other than Bedminster.
Wednesday night’s fundraiser in Minnesota, which took place during the same trip on which Hicks had traveled with Trump on Air Force One, had included similar precautions as in Bedminster. Mandi Merritt, a spokesperson for the RNC, said that attendees at the fundraiser “tested negative for COVID-19 on the day of the event, completed a wellness questionnaire, and passed a temperature screening. Every guest was at least 6 feet from the president at all times.”
Blois Olson, a Minnesota political analyst with close knowledge of the event, said that the president had remained at all times behind a rope line, at a distance from guests.
But Olson viewed social media posts, he said, showing many other attendees at the fundraiser flouted safety guidelines, including singing karaoke, after the president left the event. “Nobody had a mask, nobody was physically distanced,” he said.
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, a close ally of Trump's, was at the event without a mask, posing for photographs with her arms around attendees, according to social media posts viewed by BuzzFeed News. A spokesperson said on Twitter that Noem had “tested negative Tuesday night,” the night before the fundraiser.