As soon as he returned to the White House on Monday, in a carefully timed photo-op that dominated network news broadcasts, President Donald Trump risked the lives of staff members by removing his mask and spending the next several minutes talking at them.
It later emerged that he was recording what might be called a public disservice announcement, in which he urged Americans to follow his example by disregarding warnings about the severity of Covid-19, the coronavirus disease he is currently infected with, which has killed more than 210,000 of their fellow citizens.
If there was any mystery as to what the urgent business was that prompted Trump to leave Walter Reed Medical Center before he was fully recovered, it was clear from the live video feed that captured his first 10 minutes back inside the residence that he went right to work: recording take after take of a self-promotional video.
As the MSNBC host Chris Hayes has observed, by rejecting health advice that clashes with his political aims, Trump’s response to the pandemic has seemed at times to be “objectively pro-Covid.” The video he left the hospital to film, which was posted on the official White House Twitter and Facebook feeds less than an hour later, could hardly have been more conducive to the spread of the illness had it been scripted by the virus itself.
In it, Trump downplayed the health risks of the disease that required him to spend three days in the hospital, where he received supplemental oxygen, an aggressive course of steroids, the antiviral medication remdesivir and an experimental antibody treatment. Few Americans afflicted with Covid-19 have had access to one of those medications, let alone all three.
Rather than telling the public to avoid getting infected, for their own safety and to keep hospitals from being overwhelmed, the president cast the illness as easily overcome. “Don’t let it dominate you. Don’t be afraid of it. You’re gonna beat it,” Trump told the public. “We have the best medical equipment, we have the best medicines,” he added. “Don’t let it take over your lives.”
“And you’re gonna beat it,” a somewhat manic Trump repeated. “I went, I didn’t feel so good. And two days ago — I could’ve left two days ago — two day ago, I felt great — like better than I have in a long time. I said just recently, ‘better than 20 years ago.’”
According to the president’s medical team, two days ago he was first administered the steroid dexamethasone. As the dissident Republican consultant Stuart Stevens noted, Trump’s manic surge of energy could be a side effect of the dexamethasone, a corticosteroid which is a banned performance-enhancing drug. “Trump could barely walk down a ramp before he was sick,” Stevens tweeted. “Of course he feels better jacked on steroids.”
Having contracted the pandemic illness after six months of recklessly ignoring public health guidance from his own government to wear a mask and avoid crowds, Trump then bizarrely tried to cast getting infected with a life-threatening disease as an accomplishment.
“We’re going to be out front. As your leader, I had to do that,” Trump said, apparently referring to his decision to gather his supporters together to cheer for him despite the risks to their health, and his. “I knew there’s danger to it, but I had to do it,” he said. “I stood out front. I led. Nobody that’s a leader would not do what I did.”
Trump’s strange attempt to spin his illness as a wound sustained in battle appeared to echo a campaign aide who told ABC News on Sunday, “this is a general-in-the-field type moment.” But the analogy makes no sense. Trump was not felled by the virus while attempting to kill it in battle. He contracted a viral infection, after months of reckless behavior, like holding campaign rallies and White House events without masks or social distancing, attempting to instill a false sense of security in Americans that, as he said last week while already infected, “the end of the pandemic is in sight.”
Despite access to the best medical advice in the world, the president and his entourage, many of whom are now also infected, also failed to grasp the basic science that requiring people who interacted with him to first test negative for Covid-19 did not guarantee that they were not potentially infectious.
Even though he remains infected, and his doctor has refused to answer questions about possible lung damage or neurological problems, Trump also falsely pronounced himself cured. “Now I’m better, and maybe I’m immune,” the president said, misleading the public about the fact that he is still sick.
He then advised the public to follow his lead by acting as if a deadly pandemic is no big deal. “Don’t let it dominate your lives. Get out there,” he told Americans, who might prefer a federal government that provides widely available testing, extended unemployment insurance and rigorous contact tracing instead of pep talks.
Near the end of his message, Trump did sound a single note of caution. “Be careful,” he said, before immediately undermining that message by suggesting that even if they were not, they would be fine. “We have the best medicines in the world,” Trump insisted. “And the vaccines are coming momentarily.”
While it seems unlikely that a safe and effective vaccine will be available that soon, by constantly refusing to wear a mask, even now that he has the virus, Trump has continued to undermine a key public health strategy to slow the spread of the pandemic.
When he made his way to the hospital on Friday, Trump wore a simple cloth mask rather than an N95 mask which would have better protected Secret Service agents and military personnel from the virus he was shedding. He similarly refused to wear an N95 during the ridiculous joy ride he took on Sunday to wave to supporters outside the hospital, needlessly risking the lives of Secret Service agents sealed inside the car with him.
Cloth masks are clearly superior to not wearing a mask at all when it comes to stopping the transmission of the coronavirus, but a properly fitted N95 mask provides maximum protection when exposed to people who have the illness. The need for those masks can be most starkly seen in the large proportion of healthcare workers who have become infected and died of Covid-19 as a result of not having them.
During his return trip to the White House on Monday, Trump chose to wear a surgical mask, not an N95. He also decided to approach the pilots of the helicopter for a chat before disembarking.
Then, after he removed that mask to pose for the cameras on the White House balcony, he called a White House photographer over to come stand next to him, exposing her to his unfiltered breath.
News agency photographs showed that Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, was wearing an N95 mask and goggles on the helicopter with the president, as were some Secret Service agents. The White House photographer called over by Trump did not appear to have been issued an N95.
The White House media team risked their health to produce both the message downplaying Covid-19 and a second video, which set images of the president’s return from his weekend stay at the hospital to stirring music that reminded many viewers of fascist propaganda.