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A conservative activist is under fire for calling out Republicans on coronavirus spread

“Their way of approaching this really panicked me, and I know it panicked a hell of a lot of other people.”

Conservative writer and former Breitbart editor Raheem Kassam became sick with flu-like symptoms after attending the Conservative Political Action Conference, where an attendee at the event later tested positive for coronavirus.
Yui Mok/PA Images via Getty Images

During the last week of February, a man attended the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland, a yearly get together of conservative media figures and Republican officials — including Donald Trump, Mike Pence and other senior administration members. The man held a gold-level ticket to the event that gave him access to private areas and receptions with Republican Congress members and high-level guests.

Just days later, the man alerted organizers of the conference that he had tested positive for the novel coronavirus, leading multiple members of Congress to self-quarantine in response.

However, while members of Congress were informed about potential exposure to the virus almost immediately, attendees of the conference more generally were not. That led Raheem Kassam, a conservative writer and former Breitbart editor who began feeling ill at the event, to begin tweeting about his own potential exposure to coronavirus and raising the concerns of other CPAC attendees.

In response, Matt Schlapp, chair of the American Conservative Union (which puts on CPAC), told Yahoo News that Kassam was causing “a near panic” and was only speaking out because he wasn’t selected as a speaker at the conference.

“I’m sorry that Raheem was not included on our speaker schedule, and I’m sorry that he has a bone to pick with us. But using a health care moment where people are worried, to use that to try to stick a stake in my heart, was a mistake. ... And I think the conservatives who have acted irresponsibly here, I hold them in the same contempt as I hold reporters who are simply trying to make this a big political deal.”

Schlapp’s view of both the potential exposure of thousands of CPAC attendees to coronavirus and Kassam’s decision to tweet about his concerns reflects a greater tension — one between conservatives who believe the pandemic is overblown (or an effort to subvert Trump’s presidency) and others who think that politics is being permitted to shape messaging on the virus and its potential impact.

I spoke with Kassam on Thursday as he waits for the results of his coronavirus test. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Jane Coaston

How are you feeling?

Raheem Kassam

I’m more or less recovered. I mean, it’s been now, what, 11 days, which is ridiculous. They still don’t know what it is. I mean, I tested negative for flu and for H1N1 and other stuff. The Covid-19 test is still out. They’re now telling me there may even be a delay, another day delay, to get the results, so now I’m just quarantined until I get any results.

Jane Coaston

When you were at CPAC, were there people who were taking precautions [regarding coronavirus] with handshaking or anything like that that you saw?

Raheem Kassam

Yeah, a lot of people were sort of cognizant of that. A lot of people were doing fist bumps and elbow bumps. To the American Conservative Union (ACU)’s credit, not that I should be giving them much credit after the way they’d been treating me, but there was hand sanitizer absolutely everywhere, and people were using [it]. Not as many people as I would have liked to have been using them, by the way, and I was using them nonstop, but people were using them.

And by the way, that’s pretty new to CPAC. I’ve been going to CPAC for 10 years. I’ve never seen that before. So yeah, there were precautions being taken.

But at the same time, Jane, especially after the day’s events, you might be good during the sessions and while you’re walking around networking or whatever. [But] you go down to the pub and you have a couple of drinks, people soon forget, you know? And people are hugging and they’re kissing and high-fiving, your typical revelry, right? I mean, that’s just anecdotal, but it is a thing.

Jane Coaston

And when did you start coming down with symptoms of something flu-like or just feeling unwell?

Raheem Kassam

On the Monday I was at CPAC. I was at a dinner, or due to get to a dinner on the Monday evening, and I arrived early and I sat down at the bar waiting, and I just developed this extraordinary headache. And I’m not a headache guy. I’m always hydrated, I’ve never had migraines or anything like that. I quickly realized that something was wrong. I got myself through dinner, went home as quickly as possible, and basically just got in bed.

Over the course of that night and into the morning, I developed chills. When I woke up in the morning, I had full body aches, bunged-up sinuses, congestion, all of that and it felt like a flu. Then I started to get a fever. Thursday was especially rough. I was having to wash my sheets twice a day because of being bedridden, but also just sweating through your sheets all the time.

I’ve never really had anything like that, so I really started to sort of question what the heck was going on. Really ramped up my medications and everything. And then on the Friday, Saturday, the stories [about a CPAC attendee testing positive for coronavirus] started to come out. And I was like, “Well, hold on a minute. We’re now a week out of CPAC, how didn’t we know about this immediately?”

Jane Coaston

When did you start asking questions about your own potential exposure to coronavirus?

Raheem Kassam

I think the gentleman was hospitalized on Wednesday or Thursday, and so we didn’t hear about it until Saturday. So I started to make inquiries. “What was going on? Who was in touch with him? Who was he? Where was he?” And it just became abundantly clear that nobody could get answers out of the ACU. That Sen. Ted Cruz and Rep. Paul Gosar and Rep. Kevin McCarthy were being given information, but the rest of us, including people who were in the green areas, in the backstage areas, were not being given information.

So a bunch of us, which includes current CPAC speakers from this year as well as others, we all had long phone calls over the weekend. And then we finally pieced together a timeline and areas in which the guy looks like he would have been, where he would have had to have been for it to make sense that CPAC were putting out certain information about certain speakers, and that only certain speakers were self-quarantining. And so I tweeted all of that.

Obviously, [ACU chair] Matt Schlapp and his gang lost their shit.

But I turned out to be right about it all, and at that point I decided to start to seek a test, Rep. Matt Gaetz and all these others, who were originally told that they didn’t have a problem, and that they didn’t meet this guy, they were then told afterwards, “Actually, yeah, you did.” The guy was at the congressional reception with all the congressmen, and was there all of the Thursday and at the [CPAC] Shabbat dinner, and so on and so forth. He was all over CPAC. Put it that way.

So I spent all day on Tuesday on the phone trying to get a test, DOH, CDC, CDC National, all the local urgent care clinics, hospitals, etc., etc., and everybody was just sending me round and round in circles. So eventually, what I did, I got a phone call that evening from a friend of mine and he said, “Look, I’ve been following your struggles to get tests. I’ve made some calls to some doctor friends of mine. They said the best bet is to walk into an emergency room with a mask on and just immediately tell somebody, ‘Hey, I may have had community exposure. I want to get a test.’”

So that’s why I did the next morning. Early morning, I went to Georgetown University Hospital’s emergency room. I walked in in my mask. I told them in two sentences exactly why I was there. They immediately ushered me into a side room, closed door behind me, and basically ran all the tests over the course of the next five hours. They said I did the right thing in going in I was also the first person that this doctor on call had tested and now I’m just awaiting the test results. They told me to go home, quarantine, drink lots of fluids and take lots of Tylenol.

Jane Coaston

So the response from the ACU, from both Matt Schlapp and from [ACU spokesperson] Ian Walters has been “Parlor games and trafficking in rumors is not helpful.” Can you tell me a little bit about your thoughts of how the ACU responded when you first had these concerns and how that response has changed over the last few days?

Raheem Kassam

Well, at first, it was minimal information to a minimal number of people. And as it became clear that actually a lot of these people had then gone on to interact with the president, had [been] on Air Force One, [were] at Mar-a-Lago on the weekend, I think they started to realize that, oh, we better be a little bit more forthcoming with information.

Now look, I don’t know what was happening internally with them. Information may not have been flowing them from the sick man and the family of the sick man in good time. But that should have been communicated with people. I mean, you have 10,000 people in a conference area like that, and given what we know about the virus now and its proclivity to last on surfaces for hours and hours ...

Look, what I don’t understand is why, on that Saturday when they found out, they didn’t just send out an email to every single person who attended CPAC to say, “Look, we’ve had a report about a person who’s been tested positive. It’s not a reason to panic. It’s not a reason for alarm. Here are the areas in which that person spent most of their time. We’re trying to track down any further information. We’ll keep you updated twice a day, three times a day if we have to. Make sure we’re not in your spam list on your email so you get consistent updates from us and we’ll furnish you with information as it comes through.”

Instead, what they basically said is, “Hey, guys, coronavirus? Don’t worry!” Like, what? And that, especially given how sick I was at the time, that really, really ... Their way of approaching this really panicked me, and I know it panicked a hell of a lot of other people. They’re claiming that my intervention led to panic, where actually, look at where we are now as a result of my intervention. It’s actually where people are less afraid because we’ve got more information, and we can, as adults, take a view as to whether or not we want to get tested, whether or not our symptoms are bad enough.

One lady had symptoms and she wasn’t going to get tested originally because the ACU had basically said, “Nothing to worry about.” Then she saw my tweet thread and said, “Okay, I’m going to get tested.” She went to get tested and she came back positive for a different strain of coronavirus. Now, I know those aren’t as deadly, but it’s a good thing she got that test and she got checked. And I just think it’s so irresponsible to tell people, “Yeah, you’re good. Don’t worry.”

There’s no playbook for [coronavirus]. They can’t be expected to know how to deal with these things. But the last thing they should start doing is hurling accusations at me and telling the attendees that they’re being too panicky or anything like this. This is an international public health crisis we’re talking about. People will forgive an overreaction. They won’t forgive an underreaction.