By ELIZABETH THOMAS, ABC News
(WASHINGTON) — Despite top health experts warning Americans against holding indoor in-person gatherings during the holidays, President Donald Trump has continued to brush those concerns aside, defending holding White House parties this month amid daily record numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths.
At a Tuesday event touting his vaccine effort, a reporter asked,”Why are you modeling a different behavior to the American people than what your scientists tell?”
“They’re Christmas parties, and, frankly, we’ve reduced the number very substantially, as you know,” Trump responded. “I see a lot of people at the parties wearing masks, and I would say that I look out at the audience at those parties, and we have a lot of people wearing masks, and I think that’s a good thing.”
Yet videos and photos posted on social media paint a starkly different picture. They show many of those attending the gatherings not wearing masks or social distancing.
At Monday night’s event, Donald Trump Jr. – who was not wearing a mask – livestreamed his father’s remarks on Facebook where he can be heard saying “This is a big group of people tonight.”
Trump campaign lawyer Jenna Ellis, who tweeted a photo of herself at a party Friday, has tested positive, sources said Tuesday.
The annual White House parties are typically held in the weeks leading up to Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa and traditionally take place on the first floor, called the State Floor, with guests allowed to wander freely through the decorated, ceremonial rooms. Invitations are much sought-after.
But this year, even as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told Americans to avoid such large gatherings — and the White House coronavirus task force warned that the pandemic is “in a very dangerous place” — Trump began hosting the parties for supporters last week.
Despite the CDC’s warning, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar — who oversees the CDC — said Wednesday he, too, had attended one of the White House parties.
“Most of the individuals around me were wearing masks, we worked to keep distance,” he said in a CNN interview, although the relatively small White House rooms can make that difficult at best with crowds of people eating and drinking. He said there were fewer people than in previous years, that he wore a mask and “felt comfortable” and “safe.”
So far, the White House has hosted at least 10 such parties and expects to hold at least 20 – at times with more than 200 guests, according to sources familiar with the matter.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany has shrugged off the potential danger.
“If you can loot businesses, burn down buildings, engage in protests, you can also go to a Christmas party. You can celebrate the holiday of Christmas, and you can do it responsibly,” McEnany said during a White House press briefing last week. “We will engage in the celebration of Christmas.”
McEnany, who tested positive for the coronavirus in October, tweeted a video of herself at one of the parties without a mask while holding her young child.
In November, Stephanie Grisham, chief of staff and spokeswoman for first lady Melania Trump, claimed that “masks will be required” at the parties but it was unclear how any precautions would be enforced, if at all.
“The People’s House will celebrate Christmas and Hanukkah while providing the safest environment possible,” Grisham’s statement said. “This includes smaller guest lists, masks will be required and available, social distancing encouraged while on the White House grounds, and hand sanitizer stations throughout the State Floor. Guests will enjoy food individually plated by chefs at plexiglass-protected food stations. All passed beverages will be covered. All service staff will wear masks and gloves to comply with food safety guidelines. Attending the parties will be a very personal choice. It is a longstanding tradition for people to visit and enjoy the cheer and iconic decor of the annual White House Christmas celebrations.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has publicly disagreed with the president and has accepted President-elect Joe Biden’s call to make him his chief medical adviser. He warned Monday that, just as happened after Thanksgiving, Christmas gatherings could result in another surge in COVID-19 cases and urged against indoor gatherings.
“For the first time in more than 30 years, I’m not spending the Christmas holidays with my daughters,” Fauci told CBS News’ The Milken Institute’s Future of Health Summit.
Fauci turns 80 on Christmas Eve.
ABC News’ Ben Gittleson, John Santucci and Libby Cathey contributed to this report.
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