Adding to the confusion about his status, Trump briefly left Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda to wave to supporters from a motorcade, after releasing a video on Twitter thanking people who had gathered outside the facility.
“We’re getting great reports from the doctors,” Trump said in the video before promising a “little surprise” to his supporters. “It’s been a very interesting journey. I learned a lot about covid.”
At a news conference earlier Sunday, Trump’s medical team tried to clear up muddled picture it had created the previous day when White House doctor Sean Conley falsely suggested that Trump had not been given supplemental oxygen.
But Conley continued to evade directly answering specific questions about Trump’s health Sunday, even as he revealed that the president had been given dexamethasone, a steroid that is typically reserved for severely ill coronavirus patients needing oxygen. Conley openly admitted to withholding truthful information about Trump’s plummeting blood-oxygen levels Friday, indicating he did so to put a positive spin on the president’s improving condition.
“I was trying to reflect the upbeat attitude that the team, the president, that his course of illness, has had,” Conley said Sunday, explaining why he told reporters Saturday that Trump had not been given oxygen Friday. “I didn’t want to give any information that might steer the course of illness in another direction. And in doing so, you know, it came off that we were trying to hide something, which wasn’t necessarily true.”
Conley also announced that Trump’s oxygen levels had dropped again on Saturday. Asked if Trump had been administered supplemental oxygen as a result, Conley said that he did not know and would have to check with the nursing staff.
The episode continued what has been a days-long torrent of falsehoods, obfuscation, evasion, misdirection and imprecision from those surrounding Trump as he faces the greatest threat to a president’s health in decades. From the chief White House doctor to the president’s chief of staff, the inability to provide clear, direct and consistent information about Trump’s condition has been widespread since the coronavirus began rapidly circulating in the West Wing.
Trump, his doctors and White House aides sought to portray him as improving and largely unencumbered by the virus that has killed more than 209,000 Americans. White House aides emphasized that Trump was continuing to work while at Walter Reed, casting him as a triumphant warrior.
In the Twitter video, Trump said that he has spent part of his time at Walter Reed visiting wounded warriors and first responders without providing details about how those patients were protected against the president infecting them with covid-19. He also indicated that he understood the coronavirus better than medical experts after having contracted it.
“I learned it by really going to school — this is the real school. This isn’t the let’s-read-the-book school,” he said. “And I get it, and I understand it.”
The president donned a mask as he waved to a crowd of fans from inside a black SUV, clapping his hands and flashing a thumbs-up sign. He returned to Walter Reed after what White House spokesman Judd Deere described as a “short, last-minute motorcade ride to wave to his supporters.”
Trump told advisers on Sunday that he was getting bored being in the hospital and was tiring of watching coverage of his hospitalization. The ride past supporters was so impromptu that officials in charge of assembling the White House press pool were not even told.
The decision by Trump, who announced he tested positive for the coronavirus on Friday, to defy public health guidelines and leave quarantine to greet his supporters confounded medical experts on Sunday. Several agents from the Secret Service, which has already suffered from coronavirus outbreaks in recent weeks while protecting Trump, were also in the SUV with the president.
The car ride was designed to show strength, advisers said, and by the end of the day, campaign officials were touting Trump for doing more than Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden that day even while suffering from covid-19.
Most staffers were not with Trump at Walter Reed on Sunday. White House Chief of Staff Mark, whose comments about Trump’s health Saturday angered the president, and social media manager and senior adviser Dan Scavino were with the president for part of the day.
One doctor on Trump’s medical team, Brian Garibaldi, said the president could be discharged from Walter Reed as soon as Monday if he continues to do well — comments that many medical experts found stunning given the publicly known risk factors.
Even as Conley asserted that Trump was “doing very well” and that his symptoms of cough, congestion and fatigue were all “resolving and improving,” several questions about his condition remained unanswered.
Conley declined to answer questions about the president’s lungs, including whether there is scarring or whether Trump has pneumonia.
While he said for the first time that Trump had had a high fever and required oxygen on Friday morning, he declined to describe how high the fever was. On Friday morning, the White House was saying publicly that Trump had only mild symptoms.
White House communications director Alyssa Farah defended the lack of forthrightness Sunday, telling Fox News that the positive spin was part of an effort to help improve Trump’s health.
“It’s a common medical practice that you want to convey confidence and you want to raise the spirits of the person you’re treating,” she said.
It remains unclear when Trump last tested negative for the coronavirus, a question White House officials have declined to answer even as a growing number of people in the president’s orbit have tested positive for the disease in recent days. Understanding the date of Trump’s last negative test could help determine how long the president may have been contagious — and how many people he may have put at risk by traveling frequently, eschewing masks and meeting with large crowds against the advice of public health guidelines.
Trump senior aide Hope Hicks tested positive for the coronavirus on Thursday morning — long before Trump traveled on Air Force One that afternoon for a fundraiser in New Jersey, officials said. After returning, Trump took a rapid test, which came back positive, followed by another test. While awaiting those results he appeared on Sean Hannity’s Fox News television show and did not disclose the positive result of his rapid test. Later that night the results of the more precise test also showed he was positive and the president disclosed his diagnosis in a tweet.
Since announing his diagnosis Friday, Trump has been treated with a range of drugs and experimental therapeutics, including the steroid dexamethasone, antiviral drug remdesivir and a cocktail of monoclonal antibodies that has not yet been approved to try to fight the virus with the Food and Drug Administration.
Medical experts who have reviewed the president’s treatment program said that any attempt to allow Trump to return to the White House on Monday would raise questions of political influence on the medical process.
Several of the president’s advisers and allies said the White House’s handling of the diagnosis, and the culture that caused it, leave much to be desired.
“I don’t think the procedures around the president were providing him the protection he needed and deserved,” said Scott Gottlieb, the former FDA commissioner under Trump. “The cavalier approach that put the president at risk extended into some of the policy choices that were made and how they approached covid as a matter of public policy,”
Tom Bossert, Trump’s former homeland security adviser, said the president and his team did not avoid large gatherings, socially distance, wear a mask, isolate themselves or quarantine after being in contact people who had contracted covid-19.
“At this point, the president and senior people around him have violated all five core principles of the country’s coronavirus strategy,” he said. “I do not wish to be perceived as criticizing him while he is in this condition, but that needs to be pointed out. I am praying for his recovery.”
Surrogates for Joe Biden have made similar arguments, seeking to contrast the Democratic presidential nominee’s approach to the virus with that of the president.
“Joe Biden has led by example,” Biden deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield said in an interview with ABC News’s “This Week.” “I think that’s what the American people are looking for.”
Several White House officials said there was an anxious culture around Trump.
“There is no contact tracing. There is no information being shared with us,” said one official involved in the coronavirus response. “They’re saying internally to us, `He’s ok, he’s ok,’ but they are putting him on oxygen and his vitals aren’t good.”
White House officials are still not required to wear masks, Deere said. Staff on the National Security Council are now mandated to cover their faces, according to a directive from national security adviser Robert O’Brien.
Trump has told allies he wants to come back to the White House Monday, but there is some fear among his advisers that it is a political decision — and that he could relapse and have to return to Walter Reed.
The White House has most of the medical functions that Walter Reed has, but it doesn’t have the same equipment for advanced imagery and other critical care functions, officials said.
Additionally, the White House continues to deal with an ongoing coronavirus outbreak, with several staff members testing positive.
Nick Luna, Trump’s personal assistant, has tested positive for the novel coronavirus, according to a senior administration official.
News of Luna’s diagnosis was first reported Saturday night by Bloomberg News.
Meanwhile, at least two White House residence staffers contracted the virus some weeks ago and were sent home. Administration officials do not believe those staffers directly gave the virus to the president, given the passage of time since their cases.
While the White House decided to not to publicly announce those positive tests at the time, communications director Alyssa Farah told reporters Sunday that the White House would be more forthcoming going forward, and would release information about the number of aides who have tested positive for the virus. Later Sunday, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany indicated that such information would not be released, citing privacy considerations.
Several White House officials are still waiting to learn if they will be infected. Judd Deere, who traveled with the president on Thursday, has worked from home, other officials said. Brian Jack, the political director who accompanied Trump to all of his events, has so far tested negative, the officials said.
Still, the White House does not plan to make any change to how the West Wing will operate to prevent further spread of the virus among the people who work there. Deere said there will be no changes to West Wing protocol — which now recommends but does not require masks.
Two White House aides asked a reporter on Sunday for information on what was happening in the building, including whether there were other positive cases.
“We aren’t getting any sort of communication,” said one of these officials, who is regularly around the president.
If Trump were to leave the hospital to return to such a setting, it would likely be a signal that he continues to put politics ahead of public health, some experts said.
Any patient with Trump’s symptoms and treatment who wanted to be discharged from the hospital three days after their admission would likely need to sign out against doctors’ orders because it would be so ill-advised, said William Schaffner, a professor of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical School.
“Absolutely not,” he said of the idea of sending Trump back to the White House on Monday. “I will bet dollars to doughnuts it’s the president and his political aides who are talking about discharge, not his doctors.
For a covid-19 patient admitted Friday to be sent home Monday “would be remarkably atypical,” said Robert Wachter, chairman of the University of California at San Francisco’s department of medicine. “For someone sick enough to have required remdesivir and dexamethasone, I can’t think of a situation in which a patient would be okay to leave on day three, even with the White House’s medical capacity.”
Medical consensus has emerged that patients with covid-19 are especially vulnerable for a window of time that lasts a week to 10 days after their diagnosis. In Trump’s case, Schaffner said, one reason to keep him hospitalized is the possibility that he might develop an adverse reaction to the medications he is receiving, including the experimental cocktail of monoclonal antibodies provided by Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc. “under compassionate” use provisions.
Covid-19 is known to cause some patients who seem relatively healthy to suddenly deteriorate because of either the virus itself or an excessive immune response that also can cause damage to several organs of the body, including the heart, doctors said.
Wachter and other physicians said it sounds as if the president’s lungs have been affected by the virus, based on his physicians’ description Sunday that the president had had episodes of low oxygen Friday and Saturday morning for which he was given supplemental oxygen to bring the levels up. “It confirmed what we all thought as we read between and around the lines yesterday,” Wachter said. “He has a moderately serious case of covid.”
Derek Hawkins contributed to this report.