U.S. Diplomat Coughs Online, and European Allies Wonder if They Were Exposed

WASHINGTON — As part of a diplomatic tour through Europe in late October, the State Department’s director of policy planning briefed journalists in London about the Trump administration’s strategy toward China. A video of the virtual event showed him coughing at least six times during the hourlong discussion.

The senior department official, Peter Berkowitz, held face-to-face meetings the same day with British officials. He had similar meetings with French diplomats a few days later in Paris before flying back to the United States on a commercial airline — and then testing positive for the coronavirus.

Mr. Berkowitz’s trip two weeks ago to Budapest, London and Paris has angered other State Department employees who believed it was unnecessary. It has irritated foreign officials whom he may have exposed to the virus. And it has raised questions about the limits of in-person diplomacy during a pandemic — especially as cases are again skyrocketing across the United States and Europe.

State Department protocols generally call for diplomats who are showing symptoms of the virus — including repeated coughing — to quarantine until they can be tested. If diplomats who are abroad test positive for Covid-19, they are expected to remain overseas until they test negative or, in extreme cases, can be brought back to the United States with a biomedical unit.

Mr. Berkowitz did neither, according to two State Department officials with direct knowledge of his travels.

Given his senior position at the State Department — the office he leads develops strategic analysis on global trends for the secretary of state — he was not required to seek permission from his superiors before planning the tour that focused on China and a new religious rights panel that is a top priority for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

The State Department would not make Mr. Berkowitz available for an interview. His symptoms while abroad have not been previously reported, although The Washington Post earlier disclosed that Mr. Berkowitz had tested positive for the virus when he returned to the United States from Europe.

To be sure, State Department officials said diplomatic travel had been more limited during the pandemic, although they could not say by how much.

“At the end of the day, diplomacy does not wait,” said Morgan Ortagus, the department’s spokeswoman. “In many ways, the mission of the State Department is more important than ever right now as we support our allies and as we keep our adversaries at bay in the chaos.”

But the State Department has at times severely limited overseas travel even before the coronavirus, such as during the Ebola crisis and government shutdowns or other budget negotiations when diplomats were told to talk to their foreign counterparts over the phone or by video conference.

Particularly in the pandemic-induced era of Zoom calls, current and former diplomats said, it is not clear what made Mr. Berkowitz’s European trip so essential that it was worth the risk.

“What’s the cost to America’s image if we infect our foreign interlocutors?” said David Wade, the chief of staff to former Secretary of State John Kerry.

During the 2014 government shutdown, “I had a line outside my door on Mahogany Row of people who didn’t want to cancel trips,” said Mr. Wade, referring to the elegant décor of the secretary’s office suite. But he said: “If everything’s essential, nothing’s essential. Appearances on public panels aren’t the Camp David accords.”

Mr. Pompeo and Stephen E. Biegun, the deputy secretary, also continue to travel, but usually fly on government aircraft and are accompanied by State Department medical staff who constantly monitor their health and, when necessary, administer coronavirus tests as required for entering many foreign nations.

In comments to journalists aboard his plane on Oct. 2, shortly after leaving Croatia, Mr. Pompeo described a balance in deciding when face-to-face meetings were essential. He said the pandemic would help the department “be leaner and better and more efficient than we were when we came into this.”

“It’s been a little harder to travel around the world as a diplomat and see people,” Mr. Pompeo said. “It always matters how you can have private conversations that are harder to have on the phone, but at the same time, we’ve all adapted just as your businesses have, just as every company and every family has had to do.”

Last week alone, other senior State Department officials announced travel to Mexico and Nigeria. In nearly all cases, officials below the level of Mr. Pompeo and Mr. Biegun fly on commercial airlines for international travel.

Questions were raised about whether the American ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Kay Bailey Hutchison, should have flown back to the United States earlier last month after having potentially been exposed to the virus in Brussels. The State Department declined to comment on her case.

And in March, department employees complained that the American ambassador to South Africa, Lana Marks, refused to quarantine after attending an event at Mar-a-Lago, President Trump’s club in Florida, once other guests tested positive for the virus.

More than a half-dozen senior American diplomats — including the ambassador in Paris and the deputy ambassador in London — either went into quarantine or immediately took coronavirus tests after coming into contact with Mr. Berkowitz during his European tour.

Embassy officials also informed the British and French governments that Mr. Berkowitz had tested positive for the virus after meeting with them — conversations that American and foreign officials described as awkward.

British and French diplomats, the officials said, took the news graciously but exuded a whiff of exasperation about the Trump administration’s apparently cavalier attitudes toward preventing the virus’s spread.

Eric Rubin, a former American ambassador to Bulgaria and president of the union that represents career diplomats, called it “especially important for senior U.S. government leaders to set an example” to ensure that “the health and safety of their colleagues and of the public are their highest priorities.”

Under department protocols that follow travel rules set by foreign destinations, Mr. Berkowitz would have had to test negative for the virus within four days before his flight to Budapest, where he met with officials on Oct. 15. It is unclear whether he was tested again before entering Britain the next day for a stay that spanned a weekend, or before going to France on Oct. 20. He flew back to the United States two days later.

But the American Embassy in all three countries would have sought special approvals for Mr. Berkowitz to enter on official diplomatic business, without automatically having to quarantine as is required for most travelers.

He did wear masks and make efforts to socially distance himself in at least some cases when meeting with diplomats, think tank scholars, students and journalists, according to U.S. and foreign officials.

For his Oct. 19 briefing to journalists in London, sponsored by the Chatham House think tank, Mr. Berkowitz participated from his hotel room through a video call, a recording of which was given to The New York Times on the condition that it not be widely shared.

“I can see you have a full schedule,” Leslie Vinjamuri, the director of the U.S. and Americas programs at Chatham House, told Mr. Berkowitz at the end of the discussion, “and traveling during a pandemic is not an easy thing to do.”

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