The national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, has tested positive for the coronavirus, but the White House insisted there was “no risk” of Donald Trump being exposed.
However, O’Brien recently returned from a trip to Europe where he was photographed, without wearing a mask or social distancing, with several foreign officials, including his UK counterpart, Mark Sedwill; the UK ambassador to France, Edward Llewellyn; and the French national security adviser, Emmanuel Bonne.
Several White House staffers have fallen sick from the disease over the past few months, but O’Brien is highest-level administration official so far to have tested positive.
“He has mild symptoms and has been self-isolating and working from a secure location off site. There is no risk of exposure to the president or the vice-president. The work of the national security council continues uninterrupted,” the White House said in a statement.
CNN cited officials as saying O’Brien abruptly left the White House last Thursday and has been working from home since then. According to the report, there was no email sent out telling national security council staff he had tested positive, and some found out only from news reports on Monday.
It is unclear when O’Brien last had a meeting with the president. Their most recent public appearance together was during a visit to US Southern Command in Miami on 10 July.
O’Brien was hired as national security adviser in September, despite having relatively light foreign policy experience, and has taken a low-profile approach to the job, certainly compared to his immediate predecessor, John Bolton.
The news stirred a tense atmosphere in Washington, as Republicans prepared to unveil their latest stimulus and relief proposals and Donald Trump digested new polling showing disapproval of his handling of the pandemic and leads in key states for his challenger, Joe Biden.
O’Brien is Donald Trump’s fourth national security adviser, a role naturally requiring close contact with the president. According to CNN, O’Brien was on White House grounds last Thursday, raising questions about potential exposure. It was also reported that White House staffers only learned of O’Brien’s test via press reports.
Citing anonymous sources, Bloomberg News reported that O’Briencame down with the virus after a family event and was “isolating at home while still running the NSC [national security council], doing most of his work by phone”.
But CNN reported that O’Brien recently went to Europe with staffers and reporters and said “multiple pictures released from the trip showed O’Brien neither practicing social distancing nor wearing a mask”.
The news will intensify scrutiny over Trump’s refusal to consistently wear a face mask in public, despite mounting evidence that masks help mitigate the spread of coronavirus. The president strongly urged Americans to wear masks for the first time last week, but he has since been seen in public not wearing a mask.
Pressure was also mounting on Republicans in Congress on Monday, to finalise a new aid package and spare millions of Americans who have lost their jobs in the pandemic from enduring dire hardship when $600-a-week additional unemployment benefits expire on Friday.
With the so-called “income cliff” just four days away, Republican leaders have indicated that they will unveil a $1tn aid package agreed with the White House. But bitter partisan negotiations lie ahead, with a measure likely to pass only at the 11th hour.
House Democrats, who passed a $3tn package in May, have accused Republicans of dithering and object to replacing the $600 weekly benefits, which they want to extend, with a more complicated formula based on 70% of wages. That calculation could in effect see support reduced to about $200 a week.
Democrats are also unhappy about liability protections likely to be included in the Republican package that insulate employers from being sued by workers who contract coronavirus.
As the political crisis on Capitol Hill comes to a head, there is no sign of the public health crisis abating. According to the Covid Tracking project, 4.2m confirmed cases of coronavirus have been recorded in the US with the death toll close to 140,000. Johns Hopkins University puts the death toll closer to 150,000.
The death rate across the states has exceeded 1,000 people a day over the past week, although on Sunday a figure of 558 was recorded.
The infection rate is continuing to surge alarmingly, particularly in the south. Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama are all showing steep upward trajectories and many states have been forced to rein back on reopening their economies after the virus caused havoc in health systems.
Florida now has more than 400,000 confirmed cases and has surpassed the tally in New York, a previous center of the contagion. California, struggling with a resurgence of its own, has recorded the most cases.
Despite the prevalence of disease in Florida the vice-president, Mike Pence, was scheduled to visit Miami on Monday, to highlight phase three trials for a vaccine.
The political fallout of the pandemic remains intense, both at state level and for the White House, where Donald Trump is dealing with the consequences of having presided over one of the worst impacts of the pandemic in the world. With fewer than 100 days to go before the presidential election, Joe Biden now holds a commanding lead in the polls.
A new NBC News/Marist poll released on Monday underlined the danger of the current moment for Trump. It gave Biden a seven-point lead in the vital swing state of North Carolina, increasingly seen as a bellwether in presidential elections. Among registered voters in the state, Biden was supported by 51% to Trump’s 44%.
Congressional horse trading over aid could have far-reaching implications for millions. Democrats have warned that any reduction in financial help to the unemployed could herald a wave of evictions as households struggle to meet rent.
On Sunday, the Trump adviser Larry Kudlow pledged on CNN’s State of the Union that a moratorium on housing evictions, which has expired, will be extended.