A contagious Donald Trump returned to the White House on Monday and immediately took off his face mask for a photo op, despite being in close proximity to his staff.
After a three-day stay at a military hospital to treat symptoms of coronavirus, the US president stepped off the Marine One helicopter just before 7pm and walked up the south portico staircase. He stopped in front of an illuminated entrance with four US flags, turned to face the south lawn – and brazenly removed his mask while posing for cameras.
Trump waved, gave two thumbs up and saluted as he watched Marine One lift off from the south lawn. A photographer stood close by. Video footage suggested that he was breathing hard. He then waved and walked inside, where masked staff were visible, only to reemerge for what appeared to be a film shoot.
In the film, which he tweeted soon after, Trump offered some bizarrely contrary advice about the virus, which has killed more than 200,000 Americans: “Don’t let it dominate you. Don’t be afraid of it. You’re gonna beat it. We have the best medical equipment. We have the best medicines, all developed recently.”
The president, much criticised for his defiance of public health guidelines, added: “Nobody that’s a leader would not do what I did. And I know there’s a risk, there’s a danger, but that’s OK. And now I’m better and maybe I’m immune – I don’t know! But don’t let it dominate your lives. Get out there. Be careful.”
Critics were stunned by the president’s audacity. Neera Tanden, the president of the Center for American Progress think tank, told the MSNBC network: “I could not imagine a greater act of selfishness by a human being, let alone the president of the United States, who is supposed to protect us. He’s doing the opposite, he’s endangering people around him.”
The reckless act seemed to signal an unbroken line in Trump’s cavalier attitude to the virus, which he had admitted he deliberately downplayed for months. He also announced on Twitter his intention to return to the election campaign trail “soon”.
“Don’t be afraid of Covid,” he tweeted earlier in the day. “Don’t let it dominate your life. We have developed, under the Trump Administration, some really great drugs & knowledge. I feel better than I did 20 years ago!”
The message appeared to confirm the predictions of critics that, if Trump stays relatively healthy, he will attempt to use his own experience to yet again downplay the virus and claim its severity has been exaggerated.
Earlier on Monday Sean Conley, the White House physician, whose own credibility had been questioned, explained the decision for Trump leaving Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. “He’s met or exceeded all standard discharge criteria,” Conley told reporters. “He’ll receive another dose of Remdesivir [an antiviral medication] here today and then we plan to get him home.”
He added: “We send patients home with medications all the time. In fact, yesterday afternoon he probably met most of his discharge requirements.”
A reporter asked how this would be safe, referring to Trump’s drive by supporters on Sunday and his return to the White House, where staff have reportedly been in turmoil since the president and first lady’s diagnoses late last week.
Conley said: “The president has been surrounded by medical and security staff for days wearing full PPE. And yesterday the US secret service agents were in that same level of PPE for a very short period of time.”
It has been more than 72 hours since Trump’s last fever, Conley added, and his blood oxygen level was normal. “Though he may not entirely be out of the woods yet, the team and I agree that all our evaluations and, most importantly, his clinical status, support the president’s safe return home where he’ll be surrounded by world class medical care 24/7.”
But Conley repeatedly declined to say whether Trump’s lungs had suffered inflammation or when he received his last negative test. “I don’t want to go backwards,” he said.
Anthony Fauci, the top US infectious diseases expert and White House Coronavirus Task Force member, warned on CNN that Trump could experience a “reversal” in his progress. “I’m not involved in his primary care,” Fauci said. “But the issue is that he’s still early enough in the disease that it’s no secret that if you look at the clinical course of people sometimes, when you’re five to eight days in, you can have a reversal.”
Fauci also said he believed the experimental Regeneron antibody therapy given to Trump helped the president. Fauci explained that “monoclonal antibodies” are a treatment that scientists are “really quite optimistic about”. The drug has been developed specifically for the pandemic and is in late stage trials in the US.
Speaking on Rachel Maddow, former CIA director John Brennan, a fierce critic of the president, said, “I don’t think the American people can have any confidence that what they’re hearing right now about Donald Trump’s health is accurate.”
Wearing a mask, Trump emerged from Walter Reed at 6.38pm on Monday. He walked to a presidential limousine ignoring reporters questions: “Mr President, how many members of your staff are sick?” Another asked if he was a “super-spreader”.
Trump, giving a slight wave, said: “Thank you very much, everybody.”
He paused at the limousine and gave a thumbs up and fist wave before climbing in. He then took the short flight on Marine One to the executive mansion, where he staged his most controversial photo op since his security forces cleared peaceful protests so he could pose with a Bible outside a historic church.
But he found a White House diminished by Covid-19, with press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, two junior communications staff and two housekeeping staff the latest to test positive on Monday. Personnel there have flouted public health guidelines for months. There are now concerns the outbreak could threaten the running of government.
Zac Petkanas, a director at the health advocacy group Protect Our Care, condemned Trump’s decision to return. “The fact that he’s willing to endanger the lives of White House support staff like housekeepers, janitors and his Secret Service detail speaks volumes about his priorities,” Petkanas said.
Joe Lockhart, a former White House press secretary under Bill Clinton, tweeted: “This Presidency has turned grotesque. The President is a superspreader who thinks he’s immune and doesn’t care how many he kills – as long as the camera gets his good side.”