The White House took flak throughout the weekend over its mixed messaging on President Donald Trump’s health. That blowback continued into Sunday evening because of a lack of any messaging or information before the president briefly departed Walter Reed Medical Center in a motorcade.
Trump, a 74-year-old, overweight patient who has been hospitalized with Covid-19 since Friday, surprised supporters — and the reporters who track his movement — by waving to a crowd of cheering well-wishers as his motorcade drove past the hospital.
The president was seen wearing a mask inside a black SUV, but many of the tightly packed supporters who gathered outside did not have face coverings, a problem exacerbated by the cheers the president’s appearance elicited as he drove by.
The lack of communication with the pool of reporters tasked to follow the president’s movements drew swift condemnation from the White House Correspondents’ Association and became the latest data point in issues the Trump administration has had in sharing timely, accurate updates on the president’s health.
“It is outrageous for the president to have left the hospital — even briefly — amid a health crisis without a protective pool present to ensure that the American people know where their president is and how he is doing,” the WHCA said in a statement. “Now more than ever, the American public deserves independent coverage of the president so they can be reliably informed about his health.”
Trump’s doctors on Sunday said he could be discharged as soon as the next day, but their assessment of the president’s health didn’t necessarily align with that message. Sean Conley, the president’s physician, told reporters that X-rays and CT scans revealed only “some expected findings but nothing of any major clinical concern,” declining to go into detail.
Conley said Trump had been given dexamethasone, a decades-old steroid typically recommended for patients with severe or critical cases of the coronavirus. Trump had also received supplemental oxygen at the White House on Friday morning, Conley said, a revelation he avoided on Saturday when he briefed the press 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 explained Sunday. “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.”
Alyssa Farah, the White House communications director, later described Conley’s explanation as “a common medical practice,” a questionable claim.
“You want to convey confidence and you want to raise the spirits of the person you’re treating,” she told Fox News. “It’s actually a very common medical practice to do that, so if anything the doctor was giving a really strong and confident viewpoint.”
Farah also dismissed news reports that the president was furious with White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, who told reporters after Conley’s rosy news conference on Saturday that Trump’s vitals over the past 24 hours “were very concerning and the next 48 hours will be critical in terms of his care.”
“We’re still not on a clear path to a full recovery,” Meadows said then.
“Honestly, if anything,” Farah said, “I think the chief of staff’s comments reflect how close their relationship is, that he’s so close to this individual when he sees him not feeling well, not his tough, strong self that we all know, that he wanted to make sure to convey that to the public.”
Meadows had told reporters on Friday morning that the president had mild symptoms. White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow had also said on Friday that Trump had a “very moderate case” of Covid-19. But on Saturday night, Meadows told Fox News: “Yesterday, we were real concerned. He had a fever, and his blood oxygen level dropped rapidly.”
The White House also came under fire for seemingly trying to edit a cough out of a video the president tweeted, and for appearing to stage quick photo ops of the president at Walter Reed to show him at work, including one that showed him signing a blank page of paper. (Two pictures taken 10 minutes apart showed Trump in different clothing and different settings.)
Farah sought to explain any inconsistent messaging on what she called “an evolving situation.”
“We’re striving to be as transparent as we can for the American public,” she said on Sunday. “I think where the confusion sort of arose was between Dr. Conley’s briefing yesterday and then comments from the chief of staff, which he helped clarify on your network. Here’s the thing: These were two different moments in time.”
Conley’s Saturday update was “very accurate,” Farah said, adding that Meadows’ comments simply reflected that “things were a little bit more concerning” on Friday.
Trump’s brief appearance in the motorcade on Sunday afternoon was the first time the president had made some sort of public appearance since disclosing early Friday that he had tested positive for the coronavirus and boarding the presidential helicopter to go to Walter Reed.
While Trump has scaled back his tweets and released some prerecorded videos online, he hasn’t done any live virtual or phone interviews, ceding the spotlight to allies he has spoken to, to deliver messages on his behalf.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wanted the American people to know that he and Trump discussed the pandemic, Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court confirmation process, and the economy. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said he and the president spoke about getting a Covid relief deal after months of stalled talks.
Senior Trump campaign adviser Jason Miller said Trump’s message to the American people was to “be careful, to make sure that folks are washing hands, to make sure [they’re] using hand sanitizer, to make sure they’re wearing a mask if you can’t socially distance.”
“These are all important things and reminders that President Trump told us,” he said on ABC’s “This Week.” Trump also pledged to defeat the virus, Miller said.
“President Trump personally is going to defeat it,” he continued. “As a nation, we’re going to defeat it and get life back to normal.”
Steve Cortes, another senior Trump campaign adviser, cast Trump’s infection as a testament to the virus’ power. Trump had continued to hold large rallies and other events without wearing a mask, much like many in the crowd who would pack in without wearing face coverings.
“He was unwilling to completely sequester himself to take no risk because leaders take risks and he is the servant of the people as well as the commander in chief, and so he said he must be around the people he serves and he knew that it was not riskless for him to do so,” Cortes said on “Fox News Sunday.”
“He could have been hermetically sealed in the residence and been practically guaranteed that he wouldn’t get the virus, but instead, he took reasonable risks, not reckless ones but reasonable risks,” Cortes added. “Unfortunately, he got the virus, and I think what this shows us from a policy perspective … [is] that we know even the most severe of lockdowns cannot completely stop the virus.”