WASHINGTON — It was a shock, but no surprise.
Whatever semblance of normal business remained on Capitol Hill amid the COVID-19 outbreak was upended when U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert, a Tyler Republican, disclosed on Wednesday he tested positive for the COVID-19 virus.
Several other members of Congress similarly tested positive to little fanfare over the last several months. But Gohmert’s diagnosis unleashed a commotion on Capitol Hill unlike anything the nearly two dozen staffers, consultants, lobbyists and members interviewed for this story could recall in recent memory.
Gohmert's aversion to wearing masks and other practices intended to mitigate the spread of the virus had led many here to believe he might eventually contract the virus and potentially expose his colleagues. For months, members and staffers on the Hill watched with simmering fury as Gohmert and a handful of other Republican lawmakers made their rounds each day without masks.
“I just find it very disturbing that there are still many of my colleagues, especially in [the] Judiciary [Committee], that are just not following the attending physicians’ guidelines,” said U.S. Rep. Sylvia R. Garcia, a Houston Democrat who spent much of Tuesday in the same room as Gohmert in a hearing that included testimony from U.S. Attorney General William Barr.
“We’re going to have to find a way to make it a rule — and perhaps make it a rule with sanctions — because we’re spending too much time in Judiciary either arguing about it or talking about it, and we’re all on edge because they’re not wearing their masks,” she added. “I’m not sure why, but it’s just very disturbing.”
Gohmert responded to the drama to East Texas Matters, a local news outlet, saying he tested positive for COVID-19 and was asymptomatic.
“I can’t help but wonder if by keeping a mask on and keeping it in place, if I might have put some… of the virus on the mask and breathed it in… But the reports of my demise are very premature,” he said. “If somebody feels strongly about everybody should wear a mask, then they shouldn’t be around people that don’t wear masks.”
By evening, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced she would mandate masks on the House floor. But leadership had already mandated wearing masks in hearings, only to have some Republicans ignore the rules.
The outrage toward Gohmert was not restricted to Democratic circles. Current and former Texas Republican staffers interviewed by the Tribune expressed horror that wide-spread Capitol Hill fears about Gohmert had become reality.
Gohmert thrives on controversy. Usually, his provocations are met with eye rolling and private commentary within the close-knit Texas Republican Congressional world about “Louie’s being Louie.”
On Wednesday, it all became existential.
Throughout the day, current and former delegation insiders widely circulated via text a screenshot of a Politico story quoting a Gohmert staffer.
“When you write your story, can you include the fact that Louie requires full staff to be in the office, including three interns, so that ‘we could be an example to America on how to open up safely,’” wrote the Gohmert staffer. “When probing the office, you might want to ask how often were people berated for wearing masks.”
Politico also reported that Gohmert tested positive while at the White House, then chose to return to the Capitol complex to personally inform his staff.
“I don’t think that’s helpful for all the reasons,” said Texas GOP consultant Brendan Steinhauser, echoing a number of Republican staffers concerned about mask avoidance but not authorized to speak on the record. “It’s not good for their health. It’s not good for their staff. It’s not setting a good example and it is irresponsible.”
The mask debate is not new; whether the state or local government should mandate the wearing of masks has opened an ideological divide. But a number of Texas members are more than eager to post photos of themselves wearing masks on social media, if only to set an example.
One Texas staffer observed that early on, it was mostly only female Republican members who embraced masks in the GOP conference. But as the virus began to rampage through conservative regions of the country, he noticed an uptick in mask-wearing among Republicans — to the point that now, members who avoid them are outliers.
And on Capitol Hill, wearing a mask is a national security issue.
The U.S. House includes a member of the presidential succession, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Gohmert participated in a hearing on Tuesday in which the person who is seventh in the line of presidential succession, Barr, testified.
Additionally, the District of Columbia recently mandated the wearing of masks while in public.
Moreover, the Capitol, with its dependence on relationships and communication, is a uniquely problematic place for transmission. At the same time, members must travel mostly on planes and trains to Washington, interact with each other, and then return home to the same grocery stores that their constituents frequent.
And most worrisome of all, members of Congress tend to be older, and there are more than a few cancer survivors in the chamber — both factors that can translate into more severe complications from the virus.
“I wish that all the members of Congress would wear a mask, as we’ve been asked to do, to protect each other’s safety,” said U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio.
Even among conservatives who often express an aversion to a government mandate, there is enthusiasm for masks.
“I take the necessary precautions based on the situation whether it’s social distancing or wearing a mask,” said U.S. Rep. Joey Arrington, R-Lubbock. “I just don’t see the need right now for universal masking, especially not mandated by government.”
Gohmert is, indisputably, the most controversial Texan serving in Congress. A friendly presence around the Capitol, he was best known early on in his U.S. House career for his tours of the Capitol dome and his skill at barbecuing ribs. He even has a Democratic friend or two.
On Wednesday, though, the snark and eye rolls about Gohmert shifted to pure outrage. And it had been a long time coming.
Early on in the pandemic, members watched anxiously when Gohmert was potentially exposed at a conservative gathering. A physician cleared him to return to the Capitol, but it added a layer of anxiety when Congress was still operating normally and the medical profession was still learning about incubation periods and proper quarantining procedures.
About a month ago, Gohmert told CNN: “I don't have the coronavirus, turns out as of yesterday I've never had it. But if I get it, you'll never see me without a mask.”
His colleagues found that logic problematic: People can have and unknowingly spread COVID-19 without having any symptoms.
In recent weeks, Gohmert had taken to wearing a bandana. Bandanas are not considered as safe as masks, and members noticed he frequently had the cloth pulled below his nose.
And in the lead up to Wednesday, a Democratic member of Congress grew increasingly concerned for the Gohmert team after spotting Gohmert and a junior staffer walking and interacting with each other; neither wore masks.
As they heard the news, members frantically retraced their day, trying to remember any potential interactions with Gohmert and whether he was covering his face with the bandana.
U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, quickly announced she would self-quarantine, when CNN reported she sat next to Gohmert on a Sunday plane ride to Washington. Granger, 77, is the senior-ranking Republican on the House Appropriations Committee, and a player in negotiations over the coming spending package aimed at saving the economy amid the outbreak.
One former Republican House chief of staff speculated that Gohmert may have single-handedly impacted those negotiations, as members are frightened for their own safety, losing their trust their colleagues, and want to get out of the complex as soon as possible. In effect, there’s a sense the social contract of Congress is breaking down in real time.
Another former Republican staffer expressed frustration that members, staffers and reporters at the Capitol are not regularly tested before entering the premises.
CNN reported that U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, R-Austin, was recently spotted on the U.S. House floor chatting with Gohmert, and neither man wore a mask. Roy said he would not self-quarantine, but wore a mask on Wednesday.
Roy added that he's not concerned "anymore than the interactions with perfect strangers on an airplane with circulating air. With cotton masks on an airplane, where everybody is pretending like they're doing something noble to try to save people from a virus on a cylinder with 50 people on it flying through the air."
He questioned the effectiveness of masks, but told CNN he is “happy to wear a mask.”
Earlier this summer, Republicans widely scorned Democrats for engaging in a newly implemented practice of designated colleagues to vote on their behalf. Castro now anticipates Democrats will more fully embrace the practice.
“I’ve talked to several members who are going to be proxy voting for the foreseeable future because of the potential health threat,” Castro said.
There is also potential political fallout — but likely not for Gohmert.
He regularly wins reelection in conservative East Texas by margins of nearly 50 percentage points, and rarely faces serious primary challenges.
And it’s in his and other Texas districts where wearing a mask is perceived by some as crossing President Trump, and where more than a handful of residents are skeptical of medical expertise, or even consider the virus to be a hoax.
But even the president, who for months avoided face coverings, wore a mask while on a trip to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
Some Republicans worry about the public’s perception of Wednesday’s events. A number of consultants have tested mask-wearing in internal polling, and it is overwhelmingly popular in competitive districts.
“Failure to wear a mask while working in close proximity to members of Congress, administration officials, staff and reporters is breathtakingly stupid and gives liberals a tool to attack all Republicans for the troubled response to the COVID-19 epidemic,” said Michael Steel, a former spokesman for former U.S. House Speaker John Boehner.
Steel, however, agreed with other Republicans who say there is an opportunity for members and candidates to separate themselves from those who shirk masks.
“There’s some candidates in some races who will be able to use that as a point of differentiation if they are acting responsibly, and there are benefits to that,” he added.
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz was a member of the travel party to Texas and told reporters on Air Force One’s return to Washington Wednesday evening that he learned of the news when Gohmert was not on the flight.
“I think the question of masks is overly politicized. I wear a mask regularly particularly when I go out in public and when I’m on the Senate floor I usually wear a mask,” he said. “When I’m out at the grocery store I wear a mask. I think it’s strange to see masks treated as this political talisman.”
“I don’t particularly understand folks who say ‘I’ll never wear a mask no matter what,’ but I also don’t understand a lot Democrats who treat a mask as a sign of virtue.”
Business-minded Republicans have pushed hard for masks in Texas, in hopes that they will staunch the spread and allow the state to return to a more normal economy. Many members and their staffers say they wear masks and embrace quarantines both for safety and to set an example.
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, who is seeking reelection this year, regularly posts on social media photos of himself wearing a mask at public events.
“It starts at the top,” said Cornyn campaign spokesman Travis Considine, in reference to his candidate. “We’re taking the health and safety of everyone we’re going to interact with very seriously.”
Garcia, the Houston congresswoman, has had two COVID exposure scares and self-quarantined until tests cleared her.
And the profile photo on the Twitter account of U.S. Rep. Pete Olson, a Sugar Land Republican, showed the retiring congressman in a mask.
Back home in Texas, Austin-based Democratic consultant Jason Stanford watched the events in Washington from afar in dismay.
“There’s a reason Texas is a jump-ball state,” he said. “The reason is all of us are living this reality.”
Valeria Olivares contributed to this report.