Two days later, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic.
Since then, the virus has claimed more than 212,000 American lives, tanked the economy and forced millions out of their jobs or school, imperiling the president’s reelection prospects. But it may never have been more palpable for Trump than the moment last week when Hicks took ill — closely foreshadowing his own sickness.
Hicks is rarely seen — her disdain for the spotlight is matched by her loyalty to the man who loves nothing more. But for the president she is ever-present. Whatever her title, her unspoken job description has been to prevent reality from intruding on him. She has managed his moods and counseled him on nearly everything, from the most substantive to the trivial. Until last week, she spent more time with him than almost anyone else outside his family.
“She is trusted because she isn’t driving her own policy agenda. She is looking out for him,” said former White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, who has worked closely with Hicks. “It’s so important for him to have a voice in the room that’s not trying to do anything other than be strictly helpful to him. She is a confidante, an adviser and a strategist.”
But when a reporter broke the news of Hicks’s coronavirus diagnosis last week, it exposed a contagion at the White House that has presented Trump with his biggest challenge at the defining moment of his presidency. It has placed exactly the kind of scrutiny on Hicks that she abhors and put her movements at the center of a conversation about the president’s handling of the nation’s most deadly pandemic in a century.
This story is based on interviews with 12 current and former administration officials or others close to Hicks, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak about her and her recent diagnosis.
Hicks had tested negative last Wednesday, the morning after Trump’s first debate with Joe Biden, but she started feeling unwell at a rally in Duluth, Minn., that night. She quarantined herself on Air Force One on the return trip, discreetly enough that other staffers did not know she was ill. When the plane landed, she exited from the rear entrance.
The next morning, Hicks reported for work at the White House and tested positive for the coronavirus. She returned home to begin isolating — but told only the president and a small circle of senior staff, including chief of staff Mark Meadows. Many colleagues, including one aide who had been near her during her potentially contagious period, were enraged when they only learned about it several hours later through the grapevine or White House contact tracers; two said they would have curtailed their contact with other people and taken a test immediately had they known sooner. Several aides said they suspected there might be a positive case in the West Wing when co-workers started wearing masks, but by the time they learned about Hicks that evening, testing facilities were closed.
But even after Trump learned of her diagnosis, he continued with a full day of activities, including his plan to attend, maskless, a fundraiser at his club in Bedminster, N.J., that afternoon. Only after he returned to the White House and held three tele-rallies that evening did he take a rapid test for the coronavirus and tested positive. He then took the more reliable PCR test for which it takes longer to obtain results.
In the meantime, news of Hicks’s diagnosis was broken by a Bloomberg reporter — not a statement from Hicks or the White House — at 8:09 p.m. that night. And that immediately raised questions about the president’s health and the timing of his contacts with Hicks, a regular traveler on the presidential plane and daily visitor to the Oval Office — none of which the White House was quick to answer. While Hicks was unique among White House staffers in sometimes wearing a mask, she had recently been seen maskless and in proximity to other aides as well as Trump himself. And although he had known about her diagnosis since that afternoon, and had already tested positive on his rapid test, Trump presented the news as a total surprise in an interview with Fox’s Sean Hannity on Thursday evening.
“She did test positive. I just heard about this,” Trump said on air that evening, though he had known for much of the day. “And I just went out with a test, I’ll see — you know, ’cause we spend a lot of time — and the first lady just went out with a test also,” Trump added. “So whether we quarantine, or whether we have it, we don’t know.” He vaguely suggested that “people from the military or law enforcement” who he said are inclined to hug his team in a show of gratitude, may have infected her: “She’s a very warm person with them.”
A few hours later, early Friday morning, Trump tweeted the positive results from his PCR test — a startling development that served as a vividly personal rebuke to his longtime insistence that the pandemic was almost over.
The five hours between the news of her diagnosis and his falsely cemented for a few news cycles the assumption that she was the one who had infected the president with the potentially fatal virus — a great frustration for her, according to current and former White House officials. It was only after a widening circle of Trump-world figures revealed their own diagnoses, such as Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, who had tested positive a day earlier, that it became clear Hicks was likely not the White House’s Patient Zero. Hicks was not even in attendance the previous Saturday for the Rose Garden announcement of Trump’s latest Supreme Court nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, which has since been identified as a possible superspreader event.
Hicks has been at home alone since her diagnosis last week and says she feels okay, according to friends, but is worried about the president and the White House.
Hicks left the White House in March 2018, a day after she had declined to answer 155 questions from a congressional panel while admitting she had told “white lies” on the president’s behalf.
She had spent almost her entire adult life working for the Trump family, having joined Ivanka Trump’s apparel company as a junior publicist two years out of Southern Methodist University. A teenage model, she had little experience in her background to predict a rapid rise to the peak of national politics. But she had a pedigree, “public relations royalty,” as one former associate put it — her father the former head of PR for the National Football League, her grandfather a top public-affairs executive for Texaco — and there are few skills Trump respects more.
In 2015, he tapped Hicks, then 26, to join him on his unlikely bid for the presidency. She established herself as a steadying presence, first on the campaign trail and later in an often treacherous West Wing, eventually becoming the youngest communications director in White House history.
“It’s a little crazy that by all accounts she is one of the youngest aides, and at the same time she’s the adult in the room,” said Joe Lockhart, who served as Bill Clinton’s press secretary and is a passionate Trump critic. “He looks around and says, ‘Who are all these people? Get me Hope.’ ”
White House spokesman Judd Deere, who was hired by Hicks, described her as “poised, no matter the situation, and totally committed to her work.”
But her proximity to Trump drew her into myriad scandals, including the drafting of a highly misleading news release that misrepresented Donald Trump Jr.’s 2016 meeting in Trump Tower with a Russian lawyer. The Mueller Report would mention her name 183 times.
By the time she testified before the House Intelligence Committee in March 2018, her personal life was also in the spotlight, thanks to her relationship with Trump’s staff secretary Rob Porter becoming public right at the time two ex-wives were accusing him of domestic abuse.
The scrutiny drove her to the brink, colleagues say. Trump never wanted her to leave. A photo taken of the two before she departed was later compared to something out of a real-life Greek myth — the president appearing to reach for her as she walks away, her right hand behind her and still in his grasp.
With a glowing recommendation from Trump and many Fox News anchors, she soon got a job with Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Corp., about as spiritually close to the White House as possible even while she relocated to Los Angeles, where Murdoch’s son Lachlan, Fox Corp.’s CEO, is based. Before she moved, former White House deputy national security adviser Dina Powell threw her a 30th birthday party, attended by Jared and Ivanka in Manhattan, to send her off.
Hicks was slow to warm to a city where disdain for the Trump White House was widespread. She acclimated after she found a church to join, former colleagues say, but still missed her friends and family back East.
The White House never relinquished its hold. In June 2019, she was called back to Washington to testify again before the House Judiciary Committee regarding the Mueller investigation. In the hearing, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) referred to her three times as “Ms. Lewandowski,” a slip that her allies say was a deliberate effort to evoke reports that had linked her in the early days on the campaign to Trump’s first campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski.
About a year ago, according to former colleagues, she started discussing her return to the White House with Trump, his daughter Ivanka and his son-in-law Jared Kushner. The conversations became more frequent, and by the end of 2019, she was seriously considering a move back to Washington. Ivanka Trump and Kushner impressed upon her that not only did they want her back, they needed her to prepare for the coming campaign.
“Think of it this way,” said a friend of Hicks’s. Trump “speaks a language that no one else in the world speaks, and she understands it. That’s how useful she is to him.”
Meanwhile, she was growing bored in her work at Fox, where she earned $1.9 million in her 17 months there. In March, she agreed to return.
She would no longer have to sit in the cramped vestibule outside the Oval Office, as she did in her first turn in the White House, ceding that space to Trump’s former golf caddie turned deputy chief of staff and social media manager Dan Scavino. Instead, she moved down the hall to a more spacious office across from Kushner’s, with a new title, counselor to the president, that matched her role.
In addition to essentially translating Trump to others, from Cabinet secretaries on down, she had a way of presenting opposing viewpoints to him in a way that would not send him over the edge, her colleagues say. And she came with what Trump saw as perfect instincts — a trait that he admires in himself. In her new role, she strictly limited her behind-the-scenes dealings with the press. Aides say she cares deeply about any mention of her in a story and goes to extraordinary lengths to maintain her public reputation.
“She’s had a heavier focus on the political side and less on the communications side,” said Sanders. “She’s been more hands-on between political affairs and the campaign and with the president directly and trying to figure out how you do a campaign with all of the things going on right now.” Hicks has sometimes mused to colleagues that her current tour in the White House isn’t as fun as the early days, when she bonded with a team of top advisers who have since moved on.
Her advice to Trump, which is not always heeded, tends to focus on how to improve his public image, aides say. Hicks urged Trump to cut short his coronavirus task force briefings, which sometimes rambled for two hours and veered badly off-course.
The quality of her advice is said to vary dramatically. She had his ear at the height of the racial-justice protests that roiled Washington in June, one of the small group of advisers who helped plan his walk across Lafayette Square from the Rose Garden to the fire-damaged St. John’s Church for the controversial photo op that was preceded by the violent dispersal of protesters from the vicinity by police in riot gear. Allies, though, say she was not responsible for the widely lampooned image of Trump glumly holding a Bible for the cameras; she had suggested that he offer a prayer instead.
On other occasions, the president and his counselor are in perfect sync. She was deeply involved in planning the Republican National Convention this summer. She helped develop and vet lists of potential speakers, sometimes vetoing people she knew Trump was likely to reject. By the time the list got to him, he accepted it without a single change.
Staff writer Ashley Parker contributed to this story.