Minn. GOP congressmen fly despite possible COVID-19 exposure, angering Delta passengers

GOP U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber flew Friday night from Washington, D.C. to Minneapolis just days after flying to Duluth on Air Force One with President Trump, who later tested positive for COVID-19. Photo courtesy of Mike Siebenaler.

Minnesota’s three Republican congressmen who traveled with President Donald Trump on Air Force One recently are coming under fire for flying Friday after their recent exposure to COVID-19.

Reps. Tom Emmer, Jim Hagedorn and Pete Stauber attended Trump’s Duluth campaign rally on Wednesday, just two days before Trump announced he, along with his wife, Melania, and other top aides, had tested positive for COVID-19. 

Emmer, Hagedorn and Stauber on Friday released statements saying they had been tested and their results came back negative. Neither said they would quarantine, and Hagedorn, who has been battling cancer, said his exposure to the president and others did not meet the criteria of close contact.  

On Friday evening, the three men boarded a Delta flight from Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C., to Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport.

Mike Siebenaler, 47, of Minneapolis, sat in seat 15A, two rows behind Stauber, who he said sat in seat 13A, a window seat. 

Siebenaler, who works in politics, said he recognized Stauber and later overheard a flight attendant address Stauber by name. A self-described news junkie, he said he was well aware that the congressman had been traveling with the president.

“I thought, the nerve of him to get on this flight right now,” Siebenaler said. “What I did, I turned off my vent,” he said. “I don’t need the air circulating, and I also put on my tighter mask.”

The flight, which was supposed to take off around 5:30 p.m., was delayed by more than an hour after passengers who had recognized the congressmen complained that they were on the flight. The flight eventually departed with the three congressmen. 

A Delta spokesman told the Star Tribune that “there was a conversation with passengers” about the men’s presence on the flight. 

According to Delta policy, “We cannot allow anyone to fly who knows they have been exposed to COVID-19 in the past two weeks. To travel with us, you must agree that you are not aware that you and, to your knowledge, those in your itinerary have been exposed to someone with COVID-19 in the past 14 days.”

A request seeking comment from Delta was not immediately returned on Saturday. 

In a lengthy statement, Stauber said that he consulted with the office of the U.S. House attending physician and “after a full assessment, the doctor determined I had a low risk of exposure and that I should continue my normal duties, including voting on the House floor and travel.”

He also said that prior to traveling, his office consulted with Delta “to ensure I met all of their stringent travel protocols, including a confirmed negative COVID-19 test from the (Office of Attending Physicians) that permitted me to fly.” He said that is why the flight was allowed to take off with him on board.

“I am disappointed with the very public and clearly partisan shaming that is being carried out by some of my fellow members of Congress from Minnesota, who quickly jumped to conclusions and did not take the time to review the facts of the situation. We are all in this together. Going forward, I would simply ask that these members refrain from spreading fear and stigmatizing people during a public health crisis,” Stauber said.

Left to right, GOP U.S. Reps. Pete Stauber, Jim Hagedorn and Tom Emmer are pictured at President Donald Trump’s Duluth campaign rally on Sep. 30, 2020. U.S. Senate candidate Jason Lewis is also standing with them. Photo by Ricardo Lopez/Minnesota Reformer

Hagedorn on his Facebook campaign page hit back at criticism that he had endangered other passengers. 

As for Delta, the airline and our flight’s captain were fully aware beforehand, because Tom, Pete and I informed them of the facts,” Hagedorn wrote. “You see, one or two Democrats on our plane complained and tried to get us kicked off, which delayed take off by over an hour as Delta’s management in Atlanta considered the Democrats’ complaint. Delta made the decision to fly based upon the facts.”

A request seeking comment from Emmer’s office was not immediately returned. Emmer’s office told the Star Tribune that “Delta was made aware of the situation to assure all three members were permitted to travel based on their guidelines.”

DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin on Friday slammed their decision to fly back. 

“By flying so soon after being exposed to COVID-19, Congressmen Emmer, Hagedorn and Stauber deliberately put the health and safety of their fellow passengers at serious risk,” Martin said in a statement. 

Siebenaler said he was disappointed in the airline, and said he plans to get tested for COVID-19 on Monday because he acts as a caregiver to his elderly parents. 

He said he would quarantine until he is sure he has not contracted the disease, which has now killed 2,073 Minnesotans. 

“This is something that endangered my life, and potentially the lives of other people who I happened to meet,” he said. “I could be a spreader, and I would feel awful if I would to neglect my duty to protect myself and others. I’m very disappointed in them, and I think Delta could amend their policy to put something behind their policy.”

Ricardo Lopez
Ricardo Lopez is the senior political reporter for the Reformer. Ricardo is not new to Minnesota politics, previously reporting on the Dayton administration and statehouse for The Star Tribune from 2014 to 2017, and the Republican National Convention in 2016. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Los Angeles Times covering the California economy. He's a Las Vegas native who has adopted Minnesota as his home state. In his spare time, he likes to run, cook and volunteer with Save-a-Bull, a Minneapolis dog rescue group.