Why the national security adviser's Covid-19 infection is a national security problem

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CNN's Chris Cuomo says people cannot solely rely on the Trump administration's leadership to get through the coronavirus pandemic.

Posted: Jul 28, 2020 1:51 PM
Updated: Jul 28, 2020 1:51 PM

With coronavirus casualties at sickening levels, Americans learned on Monday that no one is safe from Covid-19 -- not even the man who's supposed to be keeping Americans safe. News that US National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien has tested positive for the virus presents an immediate health risk within the walls of the White House while serving as a worrisome metaphor for the administration's coronavirus crisis management more generally. If the government couldn't keep a top-ranking official like O'Brien healthy, that doesn't instill confidence it can do the same for us.

O'Brien's Covid-19 diagnosis is a near term health emergency. While others at the White House, including one of Donald Trump's personal valets, have tested positive in the past, O'Brien's exposure is particularly alarming based on the personnel that he should be regularly engaging with, not to mention the close quarters he operates in. The nature of how the White House is structured, alongside the demands of O'Brien's job, mean that critical US government personnel may have been exposed to the virus, including President Donald Trump himself.

Typically, a national security adviser engages with the President, Vice President, Chief of Staff, and other cabinet officials daily, including during the Presidential Daily Briefing (PDB) in the Oval Office, National Security Council meetings in the Situation Room (I've been in my fair share -- the room is usually pretty packed), in-person foreign leader prep calls and more. I can tell you from experience: social distancing isn't an option in a lot of these settings without extraordinary measures.

A national security adviser also typically engages with -- at a minimum -- tens of other mission critical national security personnel each day, including the NSA's direct reports, NSC staffers who come to meet with or brief him, his PDB briefer and many others. Absent physical renovations to the "suite" of offices that the NSA works out of, staff are in incredibly close quarters -- I was less than arms' length away from my suite colleague for the two years I advised a former national security adviser. Needless to say we got very close.

The White House has said that O'Brien has mild symptoms and that the work of the National Security Council "continues uninterrupted." But O'Brien's diagnosis means that a lethal virus could be stalking the halls of the West Wing for some period of time.

To make matters worse, O'Brien didn't limit his interactions. He recently traveled to Europe, with aides and Secret Service agents, where he met with counterparts from Britain, France, Germany and Italy. A photo released by the NSC shows them standing together without masks.

Weighing the exigencies of his job with the need to follow US Centers for Disease Control guidelines is a balancing act, but O'Brien's foreign foray may have inadvertently exposed even more people to the virus both at home and abroad if he was contagious while he traveled. Photos that the White House shared of O'Brien visiting a World War I American cemetery in France also show him without a mask. Nor did he wear one when meeting with journalists in mid-July.

It's true that we don't know exactly when or how O'Brien was infected with the virus. He has reportedly said he believed he contracted it from his daughter, but because his ability to show up to work is so important to our national security it is unfathomable that he (and other senior officials) wouldn't take every safety measure possible to protect themselves and everyone they come into contact with.

The White House should have encouraged personnel to follow CDC guidelines at all times -- both on and off the White House campus. The President and other senior officials may try to blame O'Brien for not being careful on his own time, but they certainly didn't set the right tone about following guidelines regardless of location. Months of not wearing masks and decrying scientific evidence didn't really scream out to staff to take CDC guidelines seriously.

The White House statement said that that there was no risk of exposure to Trump or Vice President Mike Pence from O'Brien -- but someone needs to rethink their communications content. O'Brien has reportedly been working from an off-site location for days other than a brief visit to the White House on Thursday, when he left abruptly. Trump also said he hadn't seen O'Brien recently. But that shouldn't make any American sleep better at night.

While there is no risk of exposure to O'Brien while he is off site, the White House statement sure sounds like the President doesn't spend a lot of time with the man who is supposed to be his most senior adviser on all things national security. O'Brien was last seen with Trump on the President's July 10 trip to CENTCOM headquarters in Florida. Trump and O'Brien's lack of contact could be attributed to O'Brien's travel, but even so the crisis communications here are doing more harm than good.

We know from Trump's Twitter feed that he spends a lot of time watching TV and that he and O'Brien haven't seen each other in a while. This is a public admission that they don't do historically routine things together like hold NSC meetings, prep for foreign calls, get briefed on the PDB and more. For a long time there's been good reason to think that Trump has probably spent more time with his "security" advisers on television than he has with his own NSA, and the White House's comments on O'Brien's infection seems to confirm that.

While we hope for O'Brien's speedy recovery, we must also hope that the Covid-19 outbreak can be contained -- quickly -- because it is a security vulnerability. At an operational level, there is disruption whenever a senior official cannot fully perform their job. The White House has not said O'Brien is working limited hours, but having worked for an NSA for years I know that it is just not possible to fully do your job as efficiently from home even with a secure facility at your house or regular intelligence courier drop offs. That makes the playing field even more uneven vis-a-vis other countries who have a full team on deck.

The White House is trying to portray a message of continuity of operations and stability because they know how bad it looks to have an official at this level operating at less than full capacity. The editor of China's Global Times tweeted on Monday about how this development shows that the virus is out of control. The Global Times is published by the ruling Chinese Communist Party's mouthpiece, the People's Daily, and the tweet should be seen as part of the Chinese CCP's influence operations against the US, but the editor's not wrong about this diagnosis and what it says about how far we have to go in just containing the virus.

More broadly, the fact that the White House couldn't secure its top security adviser sends a terrifying message about the administration's Covid-19 responsiveness -- that it's inadequate at best.

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 350070

Reported Deaths: 7590
CountyCasesDeaths
Hinds24512449
DeSoto23513283
Harrison21172335
Rankin15798293
Jackson15735254
Madison11171227
Lee10903180
Jones9223169
Forrest9027163
Lauderdale8087244
Lamar724890
Lowndes7199152
Lafayette6631125
Washington5661140
Pearl River5357154
Oktibbeha503198
Bolivar5004134
Warren4817128
Panola4812112
Marshall4739106
Pontotoc452473
Hancock440388
Neshoba4401181
Union438979
Monroe4369138
Lincoln4228116
Pike3739114
Leflore3676125
Alcorn355374
Tate354988
Sunflower351094
Adams347490
Scott346677
Yazoo342977
Copiah330869
Simpson327191
Itawamba317281
Coahoma315685
Tippah312869
Prentiss302563
Covington302384
Marion289882
Leake288676
Wayne280945
George277351
Grenada272188
Newton266864
Tishomingo240770
Winston238084
Stone235338
Jasper234748
Attala228674
Chickasaw221460
Holmes202574
Clay201954
Clarke189580
Tallahatchie185642
Calhoun183232
Smith183036
Yalobusha173641
Walthall150449
Lawrence145426
Greene141935
Amite139144
Noxubee137235
Perry136138
Montgomery133944
Carroll127031
Webster124332
Jefferson Davis119834
Tunica116127
Benton107825
Claiborne105931
Kemper104429
Humphreys102333
Franklin88424
Quitman86319
Choctaw83119
Wilkinson79332
Jefferson72228
Sharkey51918
Issaquena1746
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 592417

Reported Deaths: 11542
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson861091591
Mobile49771865
Madison37714533
Shelby27501259
Tuscaloosa27344465
Montgomery26343628
Baldwin25860329
Lee17336181
Calhoun15498334
Morgan15225291
Etowah15060370
Marshall13198236
Houston12191293
Elmore10977219
St. Clair10852252
Limestone10816158
Cullman10610206
Lauderdale10305254
DeKalb9594192
Talladega9005188
Walker7840288
Autauga7615114
Jackson7431117
Blount7417139
Colbert6752142
Coffee6443132
Dale5723117
Russell482243
Chilton4810117
Covington4804125
Franklin462781
Tallapoosa4571156
Escambia451083
Chambers3987125
Dallas3751163
Clarke372263
Marion3470107
Pike334079
Lawrence3277100
Winston300773
Bibb292865
Geneva288383
Marengo262967
Barbour253761
Pickens247762
Butler242472
Hale236778
Fayette228165
Henry216545
Monroe204541
Randolph202844
Cherokee200748
Washington186839
Macon171552
Crenshaw170658
Clay167159
Cleburne161845
Lamar151938
Lowndes146255
Wilcox132331
Bullock126542
Conecuh122132
Coosa119529
Perry111228
Sumter110633
Greene99337
Choctaw64425
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Thursday will start off once again in the unseasonably cool 60s. We will top off just a few degrees warmer on out Thursday, in comparison to our Wednesday. Most of the high temperatures will be in the lower 90s.
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