Why Donald Trump’s Aides Don’t Stand Up to Him

Few would dare. Inside the White House, aides created a kind of alternative reality in which the threat is always receding, the boss always prevailing. In meetings with the president, “no one likes to tell him that some areas are catching fire” because of the virus, another senior administration official told me. “They only say, ‘Oh, we’re turning the corner.’ That goes on there all the time. There’s always a reluctance to talk about bad news. That permeates all the discussions.”

Olivia Troye attended every meeting of the White House’s coronavirus task force until her resignation in August. Signs posted in the West Wing urged people to wear masks, which sat in a basket near one of the entrances. Yet she felt conspicuous peer pressure to forgo them, which is likely how Trump wanted it. He practices a kind of mask avoidance, and his staff followed suit. Wearing a mask protects you and everyone around you, but for Trump it’s visual proof of an outbreak that’s still not contained. Waiting to meet with Vice President Mike Pence, head of the coronavirus task force, Troye would feel the judgmental gaze of barefaced colleagues walking past. “You’re the only one sitting there with a mask,” she said. “It’s very close quarters, and I won’t lie, there were times when I caved” and removed the mask. “You feel self-conscious.” (Administration officials have described her as a “disgruntled employee.” A 43-year-old Republican, she now supports Joe Biden’s candidacy.)

Over and over, the White House downplayed the danger in order to placate Trump. One episode that stands out for me was a news conference this summer in the Rose Garden. At first the chairs were spaced apart, in keeping with social-distancing guidelines. Then White House staff came and scrunched them together, creating an agreeable aesthetic that suggested the virus is in retreat. “Even you, I notice you’re starting to get much closer together,” Trump said, as if it were the journalists’ idea to arrange the seats so that they’re at increased risk of getting sick. “Looks much better, I must say.” (So much for appearances: Today, the White House is the world’s most famous hot spot. Trump is infected, as is the first lady, and some senior aides and the reporters who cover them.)

Behind closed doors, aides have been complicit in much the same sort of denialism. Troye recalls a coronavirus task force meeting in which Trump ignored the agenda and spent nearly an hour complaining about Fox News. The conversation veered back to the virus, but Trump interjected later and demanded that one of his aides call the network to complain. “Who’s going to call?” he said, Troye recalled. “We’ll take care of it, sir,” an aide replied. “He surrounds himself with people who he knows will let him have his way,” Troye said. “That’s the environment he created.”

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