At his first public event since being hospitalized with COVID-19, President Trump not only once again claimed that COVID-19 “is going to disappear,” but falsely claimed that the coronavirus was already “disappearing.” On Saturday afternoon — just days after the president left Walter Reed medical center, one week since he reportedly worried that he “could be one of the diers” because of his illness, and approximately two weeks after what Dr. Anthony Fauci has now described as a “superspreader event in the White House” — Trump briefly addressed a small crowd assembled on the South Lawn. Meanwhile, it’s still an open question how much the president’s own COVID-19 has disappeared. Hours after the event, Trump’s physician released a vague new statement in which he indicated the president was no longer contagious, but did not say that Trump had tested negative.
It thus remains unclear whether or not Trump has tested negative for COVID-19, and, for that and other reasons, impossible to know for sure whether or not he is is still contagious or truly out of the woods — or whether his public appearance on Saturday endangered others. “I haven’t even found out numbers or anything yet, but I’ve been retested and I know I’m at either the bottom of the scale or free,” Trump said during a taped Fox News interview which aired on Friday night, adding that “it’s really at a level now that’s been great — great to see it disappear.” On the other hand, Trump also acknowledged in the interview that he had been administered the heavy steroid dexamethasone to keep “the swelling down in the lungs” — the first tacit admission from him or anyone that his doctors had detected congestion in his lung scans. Trump additionally claimed that he had stopped taking medicine to treat his COVID-19 earlier Friday.
In his last public statement regarding Trump’s health before the event, White House physician Dr. Sean Conley said that Saturday would be the tenth day since the president had been diagnosed with COVID-19, referring to the CDC guidance which says that people with mild to moderate cases of the coronavirus should self-isolate for at least ten days from the onset of symptoms. Trump, however, did not have a moderate case according to the CDC, since he required both supplemental oxygen and hospitalization — and the CDC advises patients with severe or critical cases to self-isolate for at least 20 days. Regardless, Conley insisted on Thursday night that, “based on the trajectory of advanced diagnostics the team has been conducting, I fully anticipate the president’s safe return to public engagements [on Saturday,]” and that’s what Trump immediately did, despite widespread concern over how ill-advised doing so was.
Then on Saturday night, Conley finally released another vague statement, with the president’s permission, indicating that the president was no longer contagious — but not that he had tested negative for COVID-19. “This morning’s COVID PCR sample demonstrates, by currently recognized standards, he is no longer considered a transmission risk to others,” Conley said, adding that “the assortment of advanced diagnostic tests obtained reveal there is no longer evidence of actively replicating virus.” However, as the New York Times quickly pointed out:
Several experts expressed skepticism at the wording describing Mr. Trump’s diagnostic tests, which did not explicitly categorize the president as “negative” for the coronavirus. P.C.R., a laboratory technique that detects the virus’s genetic material, can give researchers a rough sense of how much virus remains within a person’s body, or the viral load. Dr. Conley’s note suggested Mr. Trump’s viral load was dropping, but appeared to still be detectable.
Another expert, Brown University School of Public Health dean Ashish Jha, noted on Twitter that the new statement was “way more confusing than [it needed] to be,” but seemed to mostly agree with Conley’s conclusion regarding the risk of Trump-transmission:
Though as the Times also reported:
Experts have noted that there is no test that can definitively show if a person at the end of an infection is still contagious and poses a risk to others.
It was unclear when Mr. Trump last had a fever or whether his symptoms were resolved or merely better than they were before.
What is clear is that no concerns prevented Saturday’s outdoor de facto campaign rally, which the White House tried to bill as an official event and “peaceful protest” to honor “law and order.” It was also far smaller than the Trump team had apparently intended — the White House reportedly sent out 2,000 invitations, but only a few hundred people showed up. Most of the crowd consisted of Black and Latino conservative activists already in Washington, D.C., for a gathering of the “Blexit” movement, organized by controversial conservative personality Candace Owens, which aims to convince Black Americans to leave the Democratic Party. (ABC News reports that the group told attendees that it would cover their travel and lodging expenses, though it’s not clear if that happened, and that they had to wear a BLEXIT T-shirt supplied to them before the event. Nearly all attendees also wore red MAGA caps, which may have also been handed out.)
Thankfully, unlike every other public event at the White House during the pandemic, attendees were required to wear masks and did, and reportedly had to pass temperature checks (which cannot detect people with asymptomatic cases) and fill out health questionnaires beforehand. There was no social distancing, however, and the crowd packed together to listen to Trump. He initially wore a mask as he walked out onto the South Lawn balcony, but quickly removed it before addressing the crowd for 18 minutes — nearly half the length of time he was supposed to speak.
“The images we are seeing are absolutely extraordinary,” Dr. Jeremy Faust, an emergency physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, said Saturday on CNN reacting to footage of the White House rally. “To literally draw [Black and Latino activists] into the White House, to a hot zone, is extraordinarily inept in terms of public policy and public health,” Faust commented, referring to the disproportionate impact COVID-19 has had on those demographic groups.
“If you believe nuclear power is safe, you don’t go and have a picnic at Chernobyl the next day to prove that point,” he added.
At the very least, Trump looked and sounded better on Saturday than he had earlier in the week. He also had what appeared to be flesh-colored bandages on his right hand.
As far as what the president had to say at the rally, it was a lot more of the same. With respect to the “law and order” theme of the rally, Trump began what CNN characterized as a “dark and divisive” speech by insisting that “we’ve got to vote these people [Democrats] into oblivion,” then reiterated a litany of his standard attacks on Biden and Democrats. That included insisting that the former vice-president has “betrayed Black and Latino Americans,” that the left was conducting a “crusade against law enforcement,” and Trump’s ongoing absurd claim that he has done more for the Black community than any president since Lincoln.
Regarding his illness, Trump said, “I’m feeling great!” He also thanked attendees for their prayers during his ordeal: “I know you’ve been praying, and I was in that hospital, I was watching down over so many people,” referring to the Trump supporters who gathered outside the hospital. “I went out to say hello to those people,” Trump said, referring to his shocking, dangerous decision to leave the hospital in an SUV so he could wave to his fans. “And I took a little heat for it, but I’d do it again. And let me tell you, I’d do it again.”
“It’s going to disappear, it is disappearing,” Trump said of COVID-19, at a time when positive test rates continue to rise across the country, marking what is likely the third wave of the pandemic that has already killed more than 213,000 Americans and infected another 7.7 million.
“We’re starting very, very big with our rallies, and with our everything,” Trump boasted to the crowd. Before the event began, the Trump campaign announced that they added two more rallies to Trump’s schedule next week. In addition to his previously announced event in Florida on Monday, the recovering president now appear in Pennsylvania on Tuesday and in Iowa on Wednesday. On Friday, Minnesota’s infectious-disease director announced that the surging COVID-19 outbreak in the state included nine cases connected to Trump’s September 18 rally in the town of Bemidji. Also on Friday, the Times reported that the White House had recently blocked a proposed CDC order requiring all public and commercial transit passengers to wear masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19. On Saturday, the Times reported that Trump, while receiving treatment at Walter Reed last weekend, spitballed making a dramatic Willy Wonka–like exit from the hospital:
In several phone calls last weekend from the presidential suite at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Mr. Trump shared an idea he was considering: When he left the hospital, he wanted to appear frail at first when people saw him, according to people with knowledge of the conversations. But underneath his button-down dress shirt, he would wear a Superman T-shirt, which he would reveal as a symbol of strength when he ripped open the top layer. He ultimately did not go ahead with the stunt.
So far, 37 cases of COVID-19 have been linked to the White House outbreak. It remains unclear how many of them may have caught the virus from the president — whose own outbreak from self-isolation now proceeds unabated.
This post has been updated to include the latest statement from Trump’s physician.