Reprinted with permission from MediaMatters
During Wednesday night's vice presidential debate, Susan Page, USA Today's Washington bureau chief, passed on the opportunity to get Vice President Mike Pence on the record about when President Donald Trump last tested negative for COVID-19.
Trump announced after midnight Friday that he had tested positive for COVID-19, and he was hospitalized for the weekend for treatment. His diagnosis was one of nearly three dozen announced over the last week among White House officials, Republican leaders, and the press corps after White House events conducted without following public health coronavirus recommendations apparently triggered an outbreak.
The White House responded to this superspreader event with a coverup regarding the state of the president's health and the timeline of his diagnosis. Notably, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, presidential physician Sean Conley, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, and her deputy Brian Morgenstern have all declined to answer reporters' questions about when Trump last tested negative for the virus.
That information is critical -- which is why the White House is hiding the answer.
It could indicate that Trump had tested positive earlier in the week, before last Tuesday's debate with former Vice President Joe Biden, or before his rally in Minnesota on Wednesday, or before his New Jersey fundraiser on Thursday. Notably, Trump used a separate lectern during a White House event last Monday featuring multiple speakers, an unusual occurrence that casts doubt on the White House timeline.
Or the answer could show that Trump hasn't bothered to get tested regularly and may have scammed the debate organizers who allowed him to proceed on the "honor system" regarding whether he had taken a test before his bout with Biden.
Indeed, just before the vice presidential debate began, The Washington Post added some support for that theory. The paper reported that "two officials familiar with the situation said Trump has not been tested daily in recent months" and that the White House had been relying on a flawed rapid testing regime instead of more accurate but slower tests.
Page's turn as debate moderator was a vanishingly rare chance to get an answer to the question from someone who should know it. The White House physician wasn't candid with reporters on the state of the president's health and has stopped briefing the press altogether. Trump's aides are stonewalling. The president himself is finally scheduled to do an interview on Thursday morning, but it's with Fox Business' Maria Bartiromo, a pro-Trump host who almost certainly won't bother to challenge him on this or any other subject.
Page almost got there. During the block on the administration's response to the pandemic, she pointed out that Trump's doctors "have given misleading answers or refused to answer basic questions about his health." But rather than directly trying to get Pence to answer the question those doctors had dodged, she vaguely asked him if this was "information voters deserve to know." That allowed Pence to give one of his typically shameless and slimy answers, falsely claiming of the White House physicians that "the transparency they've practiced all along the way will continue." Rather than pin him down, Page directed her question to Pence's opponent, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA).
Pence might well have demurred if Page had directly asked him when the president last tested negative. But he would have had to do so in front of millions of viewers, increasing pressure on the White House to reveal the truth. Page could have gotten the public the information it deserves on a crucial issue. Instead she flinched -- and now who knows when the next chance might come.