N.J. Officials Say Trump Fundraiser Put Lives At Risk, But Attendees Appear Unworried

Oct 5, 2020
Originally published on October 7, 2020 11:24 am

President Trump's last public event — a fundraiser at his golf club in New Jersey — has touched off a major contact tracing effort as well as a messy political fight.

State leaders, including New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, accuse the president of behaving "recklessly" by headlining Thursday's event. The Democratic governor said Monday that the Trump campaign may have violated state rules limiting indoor gatherings during the pandemic.

"The actions leading up to and during this event have put lives at risk," Murphy said. "We don't need folks coming in exposed to a COVID-positive individual, and then be in the midst of a couple of hundred people in New Jersey. That's the last thing we need."

But Trump supporters said Murphy is exaggerating the risks to score political points. Rik Mehta, the Republican nominee for a Senate seat in New Jersey, attended the outdoor part of the fundraiser where Trump spoke.

"The governor is melodramatic, and the governor has made this into a political issue," Mehta said. "The fear-mongering needs to stop."

Mehta refused to quarantine for 14 days, as Murphy recommended. Instead, Mehta — a pharmacist who has worked in public health — is still campaigning.

"There's no reason for me to change anything I've done because nothing has happened," he said. "We weren't sitting there, shaking hands or whispering, you know, ear to ear."

The White House learned that Hope Hicks, one of Trump's closest advisers, had tested positive for the coronavirus just as Marine One was taking off for the flight to New Jersey. Asked why Trump still went, the White House said last week that the president wasn't deemed a "threat."

New Jersey health officials said they've contacted 19 staff members at the golf club and that they're trying to reach all 200 fundraiser attendees but have had mixed results. About half came from other states — as far away as Texas and Arizona, officials said.

State officials said the task has been complicated because the Republican National Committee only provided them with email addresses for attendees, not addresses and phone numbers.

The RNC shot back that state officials never followed up to ask for more details.

The event at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster raised $5 million, according to the RNC.

The RNC said that attendees had their temperature taken on the way in and that every guest was at least 6 feet from the president at all times. Attendees said many guests were wearing masks — but not all the time.

Joe Piscopo, a comedian and radio host who's known Trump since they both rose to fame in New York in the 1980s, also said he isn't worried after attending the fundraiser and praised the president's stamina.

"I was surprised to hear that he had the virus because he looked as healthy as I've ever seen him," Piscopo told NPR member station WNYC.

But public health experts said it's not just the president who could potentially have spread the coronavirus at the fundraiser.

"He clearly has an entourage that travels with him," said Dr. Amanda Castel, an epidemiologist at George Washington University. She said those people may have been exposed or infectious and "may have had more interaction with the event organizers or the donors."

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

All right. We are learning more about the massive contact tracing effort touched off by President Trump's last public event. Hours before the White House says he tested positive for the coronavirus, Trump was mixing it up at a fundraiser at his golf club in New Jersey. Now state officials there accuse the president of being reckless while Trump supporters accuse them of trying to score political points and exaggerating the risks. NPR's Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: The president himself headlined the Thursday fundraiser with a speech in a courtyard outside the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster before a crowd of about 200.

JOE PISCOPO: I was surprised to hear that he had the virus because he looked as healthy as I've ever seen him.

ROSE: Joe Piscopo is a comedian and radio host who's known Trump since they both rose to fame in New York in the 1980s. Piscopo says everybody in that crowd had their temperature taken on the way in. He told member station WNYC that most were wearing masks.

PISCOPO: He came out of, you know, that beautiful portico at Trump National, and he had the podium. And then about 10 yards away from that, they had tables for the VIP. And then there was another kind of a fence and then the rest of us, and I was in the back just observing this.

ROSE: Trump also met big donors inside the club in more intimate gatherings. Overall, the event raised $5 million for the campaign. The White House knew one of his closest advisers had tested positive for coronavirus before he left Washington but determined the president wasn't a, quote, "threat." New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy disagrees. He says the fundraiser should not have happened.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PHIL MURPHY: It is clear that the president and his staff acted recklessly in coming to New Jersey in the first place. The actions leading up to and during this event have put lives at risk.

ROSE: At a press conference today, the Democratic governor said the indoor portion of the event may have violated state rules about the size of gatherings. State health officials say they've contacted 19 staff members at the golf club who worked the event, and they're trying to reach all 200 guests. About half came from other states, as far away as Texas and Arizona, and half came from New Jersey.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MURPHY: We already have challenges. We don't need folks coming in knowingly exposed to a COVID-positive individual and then be in the midst of a couple of hundred people in New Jersey. That's the last thing we need.

ROSE: Murphy said there haven't been any new confirmed cases from the event so far. He urged anyone who attended the event to get a test and to quarantine for 14 days even if they weren't particularly close to the president. But not all of the guests plan to follow his advice.

RIK MEHTA: The governor is melodramatic, and the governor has made this into a political issue.

ROSE: Rik Mehta is the Republican nominee for the Senate in New Jersey. He's also a pharmacist who has worked in public health. Mehta attended the outdoor part of the fundraiser at Bedminster last week but has not curtailed any of his campaign events in the days since.

MEHTA: There's no reason for me to change anything I've done because nothing has happened. We weren't sitting there shaking hands or whispering, you know, ear to ear. There's nowhere in the guidance that says if you're in the proximity of, you know, 40 feet, all of a sudden, you should quarantine for 14 days. You know, the fearmongering needs to stop.

ROSE: But public health experts say it's not just the president who could have potentially spread the coronavirus at the fundraiser. Members of his traveling party could have been infectious, too. Dr. Amanda Castel is an epidemiologist at George Washington University.

AMANDA CASTEL: He clearly has an entourage that travel with him. And, you know, it's important to know because they may have had more interaction with, you know, the event organizers or the donors.

ROSE: New Jersey officials say they've had mixed results in reaching guests who may have been exposed. They say it's been hard because the Republican National Committee only provided them with email addresses, not addresses and phone numbers. The RNC shot back that state officials never followed up to ask for more details. A spokesman says, quote, "every guest was at least six 6 from the president at all times." Joel Rose, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANORAAK SONG, "HERE YOU GO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.