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The president’s COVID-19 cover-up continues

Dr. Sean Conley, physician to President Trump, is followed by a team of doctors for a briefing with reporters at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Saturday. <span class="copyright">(Susan Walsh / Associated Press)</span>
Dr. Sean Conley, physician to President Trump, is followed by a team of doctors for a briefing with reporters at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Saturday. (Susan Walsh / Associated Press)

President Trump returned to the White House Monday after just three days of treatment for COVID-19 at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, peeling off his face mask dramatically (and dangerously) on arrival to suggest that he had beaten the infection that has killed so many thousands of others and was raring to go back to the critical work of running the country. “Feeling really good!” he tweeted earlier in the day.

The team of physicians overseeing the president’s care Monday afternoon endorsed the move, saying his vital signs were normal and his mind clear. “He’s back,” Trump’s personal physician Dr. Sean Conley told reporters.

That’s good news if it’s true, but color us skeptical.

Let’s be clear up front that we wish Trump a speedy and complete recovery, for his own sake and for the stability of the country. But from the moment last week when the president revealed that he and First Lady Melania Trump had tested positive for the coronavirus, the truth about the still unfolding outbreak of COVID-19 among those who work in or are connected to the White House has been as elusive as Trump’s tax returns.

Simple questions have gone unanswered. Did the president know his campaign advisor Hope Hicks tested positive before he took off for a fundraiser in New Jersey on Thursday? When was Trump’s last negative test? Why isn’t the White House informing people who might have been exposed? How bad was his fever?

We’d like to believe that medical professionals are immune to the type of mendacity practiced with regularity by the Trump administration. But Conley and the team treating the president seem to have been influenced by Trump’s desperate need to be seen as uncommonly hale and hearty, and certainly not as an overweight and at-risk senior citizen. He’s doing great, they exclaimed at one moment; the next they described giving him treatment that one would expect only in a serious COVID-19 case. It was more than a little confusing.

During a Saturday press briefing, Conley came very close to outright lying while evading questions about whether the president had received supplemental oxygen. This matters because it would have been a sign that that the president was having problems breathing and therefore was sicker than anyone was letting on. White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows revealed later that the president had a fever on Friday and that his blood oxygen had dropped rapidly, prompting his transfer to the hospital.

The next day Conley admitted that — OK, yes — Trump had indeed received oxygen but said by way of explanation, “I didn’t want to give any information that might steer the course of illness in another direction.” Perhaps not, but how can the public trust Conley to give them the straight story

The Daily 202: Trump seems to remain in denial about coronavirus dangers, as the coverup continues

The Trump presidency has presented scores of painful lessons on the limitations of the power of positive thinking. Climate change continues to make fires, floods and hurricanes worse, even if Trump denies it and his political appointees seek to erase mentions of it from government reports. Russia interfered in the 2016 election and the intelligence community agrees the Kremlin is trying once again to influence the 2020 campaign, but Trump struggles to accept that reality because, current and former aides say, he believes that acknowledging the Kremlin’s support for his campaign would undermine his legitimacy. And so on.

But nothing captures the hubris of trying to spin the primal forces of nature into submission more than the president’s response to the novel coronavirus.

Trump said in January that the coronavirus was “totally under control” and that there would be only a few U.S. cases before the number would “go down to zero.” On Feb. 28, Trump said: “It’s going to disappear. One day it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.” In March, Trump said people would be able to celebrate vanquishing the coronavirus by going to church on Easter. 

That was more than six months ago. Trump downplayed the dangers of the contagion not just at the country’s peril – but his own. Watching these clips with the benefit of hindsight makes the president sound like Baghdad Bob as U.S. forces closed in on the Iraqi capital in March 2003.

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany became the latest member of Trump’s inner circle to test positive. She announced in a statement on Monday that she has no symptoms and will continue to work – but from home.

Apparently, denialism can be infectious, as well. The White House’s lead physician, Sean Conley, acknowledged at a news conference on Sunday that he intentionally withheld information about Trump’s blood-oxygen levels plummeting in order to put a positive spin on the president’s condition. “I was trying to reflect the upbeat attitude that the team, the president, that his course of illness, has had,” Conley said. “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.”

A virus does not care what a doctor says at a news conference. White House communications director Alyssa Farah told reporters that Conley was trying to project positive for Trump’s sake during his public remarks on Saturday. “When you’re treating a patient, you want to project confidence, you want to lift their spirits, and that was the intent,” she said.

Positive thinking has certainly gotten Trump far in life, and it can be very helpful for a patient fighting a disease. Everyone wishes the president well and hopes he recovers as speedily as possible and with no long-term damage. But Conley was not speaking to Trump during his Saturday news conference. He was addressing the American people.

Since being hospitalized on