President Donald Trump signaled Monday he was preparing to return to the White House imminently even as the severity of his coronavirus disease remained unclear and key questions about his condition remained unanswered.
Bored and eager to appear healthy, Trump has agitated for a swift release and on Sunday made a foray outside the hospital walls for a slow-motion drive-by to greet supporters gathered at a roadside nearby.
Trump was demanding to go back to the White House on Sunday, two sources familiar with the situation told CNN.
“He is done with the hospital,” one of the sources said of Trump’s mood on Sunday. Trump is concerned the sight of him being hospitalized “makes him look weak,” the other source said.
But more than two days since he was airlifted to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Americans remain largely in the dark about the trajectory of his infection with Covid-19 and the specifics of his condition.
And cases continue to arise in the West Wing after what many aides say has been deep mismanagement of a growing health crisis. Press secretary Kayleigh McEnany wrote she tested positive on Monday morning after a string of negative tests through the weekend.
McEnany spoke to reporters briefly at the White House on Sunday without wearing a mask. In her statement, she said “no reporters, producers or members of the press are listed as close contacts by the White House Medical Unit.”
But her diagnosis heightened the impression of the virus spreading quickly through Trump’s staff, who only began wearing masks regularly as he was being transported to hospital on Friday. Some aides have expressed frustration at a lack of communication about the situation.
Mindful of Trump’s aversion to appearing weak, the White House has tried to control the optics of his illness with misleading briefings, posed images and the reckless photo-op outside the hospital.
Monday morning, the President’s advisers were signaling he would likely be back to the White House by the evening, a prospect first raised by one of his physicians during Sunday’s briefing. The messages were funneled through Fox News, which the President has been watching almost without interruption inside the presidential suite at Walter Reed, often growing upset by what he views as exaggerated descriptions of his health.
“I heard from Dr. Conley last night and he said he is still on track for discharge today,” Marc Siegel, a medical contributor to the channel, said on Monday. Navy Cmdr. Dr. Sean Conley is the President’s lead doctor.
In a separate statement broadcast on Fox, the President’s chief of staff Mark Meadows said “we are still optimistic that he will be able to return to the White House later today.”
The decision to publicly telegraph a date of expected discharge caused some anxiety among the President’s aides, who feared the optics if Trump is not back to the White House by Monday.
It has also led to concern the President is applying pressure on his medical team to leave the hospital earlier than is prudent.
On Saturday, Conley said the most critical stretch of Trump’s disease will come seven to 10 days after diagnosis.
Based on current calculations of a positive test on Thursday evening, the President on Monday was only at four or five days. But without knowing when the President’s last negative test took place — information the White House and Conley have refused to provide — it’s not clear how far along the President is in the disease.
As he and his medical team were weighing the time of his potential discharge, Trump was issuing a furious burst of all-caps tweets related to the presidential election.
“NEXT YEAR WILL BE THE BEST EVER. VOTE, VOTE, VOTE!!!!!” he wrote, following by nearly 20 messages each listing an issue he hopes voters will deem important.
A day earlier, in the midst of an aggressive course of treatment, Trump left Walter Reed with his security detail Sunday afternoon so he could take a brief ride in an SUV past supporters cheering him on.
The surprise outing, where Trump waved to his supporters through the window while wearing a mask in the back of his SUV, was an attempted show of strength that displayed the President’s questionable judgment, his willingness to endanger his staff and the fact that he still does not seem to comprehend the seriousness of a highly contagious and deadly disease.
Trump’s doctors on Sunday provided concerning details about his condition to reporters, including two alarming drops in his oxygen levels. But their professed hope that he could be discharged on Monday — followed by the afternoon photo-op — underscored that the primary concern for the President, who was furious at his chief of staff for telling reporters about his troubling vital signs, is projecting a commanding image to the public.
An attending physician at Walter Reed harshly criticized Trump’s Sunday drive-by as a risk to the lives of Secret Service agents who accompanied him in his SUV.
“Every single person in the vehicle during that completely unnecessary Presidential ‘drive-by’ just now has to be quarantined for 14 days. They might get sick. They may die. For political theater. Commanded by Trump to put their lives at risk for theater. This is insanity,” Dr. James Phillips tweeted.
Despite the risk posed to others in the hospital, the driver and security, White House spokesman Judd Deere said that “the movement was cleared by the medical team as safe to do” and that “appropriate precautions” were taken, “including PPE.”
But with the circle of people in government or close to the President who have tested positive rapidly widening over the weekend — including at least eight people who attended the Supreme Court nominee announcement in the Rose Garden last month — there were renewed questions about the White House’s commitment to the social distancing and mask-wearing guidance from its own coronavirus task force.
The White House Management Office sent its first staff-wide email Sunday night since Trump tested positive for coronavirus early Friday morning. Until then, staffers had gotten no word about whether to come into work or to remain home given that several of their colleagues tested positive. Stunningly, the email, which was viewed by CNN, states they should not contact the White House testing office if they have symptoms.
Conley, Trump’s physician, held a second medical briefing in as many days on Sunday that again raised more questions than answers about the President’s condition.
Trump’s doctors said that even though the President has had at least two concerning drops in oxygen levels — one late Friday morning, and the other at an unspecified time on Saturday — they were hoping he could be discharged as soon as Monday.
Conley admitted Sunday that he had omitted those alarming drops in the President’s oxygen levels during Saturday’s news conference because he wanted to “reflect the upbeat attitude” that the team and the President had about his condition and didn’t want “to give any information that might steer the course of illness in another direction.”
Conley said that his evasive answers “came off that we were trying to hide something” but said that “wasn’t necessarily true,” adding that the President is “doing really well” and is responding to treatment.
The first significant episode occurred late Friday morning when, Conley said, the President had “a high fever and his oxygen saturation was transiently dipping below 94%.” The President was given oxygen at that point, Conley said, answering a question he had evaded during his Saturday briefing.
On Saturday, the President’s oxygen level dropped again “to about 93%,” Conley said. “We watched it and it returned back up.” But the incident led doctors to start treating Trump with the steroid drug dexamethasone, which has been shown to help patients with Covid-19. It is typically given to patients on supplemental oxygen or ventilation.
Conley offered no detail about what X-rays or CT scans have shown about whether there has been any damage to the President’s lungs.
“There’s some expected findings, but nothing of any major clinical concern,” Conley said, not explaining whether they were expected findings in the lungs of a normal patient or a Covid-19 patient.
While the President was still at the White House Friday, he was administered the experimental Regeneron antibody cocktail, a promising treatment that has not yet been approved by the Food and Drug Administration intended to help boost the President’s immune system. Once he was at Walter Reed, doctors began a five-day course of the antiviral drug remdesivir, which has been shown to shorten recovery time for some coronavirus patients.
A governing crisis
Some seven months into a pandemic that has killed more than 209,000 Americans, the nation is now facing a grave governing crisis with its commander in chief hospitalized, as the White House events of the past week serve as a textbook example of how not to handle a deadly virus.
The White House already has a huge credibility problem with the public, and the lack of on-the-record information from White House officials over the weekend served as a master class in opacity and contradiction that raised major questions about the President’s health.
It was only late Saturday night — more than 24 hours after the President had been at Walter Reed — that the public learned specific details about why Trump was airlifted to the hospital Friday, when chief of staff Mark Meadows said during an interview with Fox News that Trump had a fever on Friday morning and his oxygen level had “dropped rapidly.”
Earlier on Saturday, Meadows had also attempted to signal that the President’s initial condition was more serious when he spoke to pool reporters as an unnamed official after Conley’s briefing that morning. But his identity was later revealed by The New York Times and The Associated Press, and Trump was angry that Meadows had contradicted the White House physician’s upbeat assessment, two sources with knowledge of the situation told CNN’s Jim Acosta Sunday.
Conley said on Sunday he and Meadows “work side by side” and that the chief of staff’s statement had been misconstrued.
“What he meant was that 24 hours ago when he and I were checking on the President, that there was that momentary episode of a high fever and that temporary drop in the saturation, which prompted us to act expediently to move him up here,” Conley said, referring to Walter Reed.
The President’s aversion to appearing weak and sick is now driving the effort to project resolve.
“I learned a lot about Covid,” Trump said in a video released on his Twitter page Sunday afternoon. “I learned it by really going to school. This is the real school. This isn’t the, let’s read the book school and I get it. And I understand it,” Trump said.
In a similar video the previous night meant to make him look in command of the situation, Trump said the decision to go to Walter Reed was his, which contradicts CNN’s reporting that he was reluctant to go to the hospital.
Concern about optics
For much of this year, Trump has spun an alternate reality about the dangers of coronavirus — disputing science and the efficacy of masks, downplaying the risks to the American people, and making false statements about how 99% of coronavirus cases in America are “totally harmless” or that the virus “affects virtually nobody.”
He encouraged his aides and advisers to live in that dangerous fantasy land, pushing his luck to the limits as late as this past week when he again recklessly gathered thousands of unmasked Americans at his political rallies and packed the top officials in government into a Rose Garden ceremony for his Supreme Court nominee. All the while, White House officials embraced the fallacy that administering rapid coronavirus tests frequently at the White House could provide a shield of immunity.
It “seems highly likely this originated at the SCOTUS announcement last week,” a senior administration official told CNN’s Jake Tapper of the outbreak among GOP officials. “It may have come from the Hill. The next major concern will be securing Capitol Hill and protecting lawmakers,” the official added.
The President tweeted that he had tested positive for coronavirus around 1 a.m. ET Friday, hours after attending a Thursday night fundraiser in Bedminster, New Jersey. Trump got his first positive coronavirus test result Thursday after returning from that trip, a White House official said Saturday evening. But senior adviser Hope Hicks had begun experiencing symptoms the previous night while accompanying the President on his trip to Minnesota for a fundraiser and rally Wednesday night. It’s unclear whether the President was tested around that same time, given how closely they work together.
Since then, officials in the Trump White House have carefully calibrated their statements about his health in what seems like an effort to put the best face on the diagnosis at a time when the President is 29 days from Election Day and trailing in the polls. Mail-in voting has already begun in certain states across the country.
CNN’s Jim Acosta, Kaitlan Collins and Allie Malloy contributed to this report.