For Tom Mountain, a week that began with hopes of seeing President Donald Trump at the White House Hanukkah celebration ended with a night in the hospital because of COVID-19.
Mountain, the vice chair of both the Massachusetts Republican Party and the Massachusetts Republican Jewish Committee, traveled to Washington, D.C., to attend the White House Hanukkah event on Dec. 9. Several days after his return, he was diagnosed with COVID and hospitalized at Brigham and Women’s.
“I didn’t have it when I went to Washington,” he said in an interview. “Two days later, it was full-blown.”
He said that attendees at the gathering were expected to wear masks, but not everybody did while inside, and people took them off because they had to eat.
“It’s probably how I got the COVID,” Mountain said, although he was not 100 percent sure.
Mountain spoke with the Journal last Thursday, a few days after his release from the hospital. During the interview, he described his breathing as no longer compromised, but that things were scary during his one night in the hospital.
“They kept monitoring my breathing,” he said. “It was baseline, it would go down, and go up.” He said that he was not placed on a ventilator, “thank God.”
Mountain was attending his third White House Hanukkah celebration since Trump took office. The event takes place in the East Wing. As a military band performs a Hanukkah repertoire, including Yiddish songs, the guests sit down for a glatt kosher meal. At last year’s event, Mountain recalled seeing Trump sign an executive order outlawing anti-Semitism on college campuses.
This year’s event took place nine months into the COVID-19 pandemic. Other events at the White House – including a Sept. 26 reception for Supreme Court Judge Amy Coney Barrett ‒ have been called super-spreader events because of the lack of masks and social distancing.
Mountain estimated the Hanukkah gathering at 200 people, less than in the past. The military officers who represented various branches of the armed services all were wearing masks.
“I wore a mask, to a point,” Mountain said. “Not all the time. I admit it …” “Most people were not.”
Mountain said the gathering he attended did not include Trump, First Lady Melania Trump, or Vice President Mike Pence. Mountain called the president’s absence “unprecedented.”
Trump did attend a separate Hanukkah event later that night.
“We were the early-evening part,” Mountain explained. “They did not want so many people in the same place at the same time because of COVID. They had to split it up. He did not come until around 9 o’clock.”
However, Mountain said, he learned that the reason for Trump’s absence at the earlier event also had to do with the president’s brokering of a peace deal between Israel and Morocco.
“He was finalizing details with [White House senior adviser] Jared Kushner,” Mountain said. “We understood it was a very good cause,” although he was still disappointed. As for the vice president, Mountain said that he heard Pence was in Florida for a Space Force event and did “not come back until much later.”
Mountain did not stay that Wednesday night in Washington. Within about 48 hours, he began feeling ill. On Saturday, he was diagnosed and hospitalized.
“I was there one night and they let me out,” Mountain recalled. “I was breathing. They keep you in the hospital or bring you back if your breathing becomes very compromised, becomes bad.”
He got a call from Gov. Charlie Baker –“he was worried,” Mountain said – and added it was good to hear from him.
Mountain regrets that the virus spread to his family.
“My mother-in-law had to go in for treatment in a snowstorm,” he said. “It was awful. She’s 85. It’s terrible … I feel terrible about it.
“Like I said, I went down to Washington and I was fine. I came back and I wasn’t. I’m glad I did not stay overnight and came back the same day.”
As for the president, Mountain speculated that if present trends continue, this might be Trump’s last Hanukkah hurrah in the White House.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever see him again,” Mountain said.