President Donald Trump works at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center after testing positive for COVID-19 on Oct. 3, 2020 in Bethesda, Maryland. | Joyce N. Boghosian/The White House via Getty Images
Jack Shafer is Politico’s senior media writer.
Like any normal person admitted to a hospital who can still talk and walk, President Donald Trump wanted out of there. According to CNN, he demanded his release on Sunday because, in part, he thought hospitalization made him look weak, but he settled for a quick lap outside the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in a Secret Service Suburban to demonstrate his vitality.
But now, he’s won his discharge, even though his doctor concedes he “isn’t out of the woods yet.” None of us—journalists, politicians, infectious disease experts, news consumers—can judge the wisdom of sending him home—because there is so much we don’t know about his health status. Instead of giving us the straight truth, Trump, his doctors, and his aides have buttered and sugared his condition to make it sound like he’s the healthiest man in sickbay. “I feel better than I did 20 years ago!” Trump exclaimed in his tweet.
Buttering and sugar-coating the ugly has been a hallmark of the Trump administration policy approach since day one, so it’s no surprise that he’s applying the same technique to his own infection. He has consistently downplayed the severity of the pandemic, claiming that it will just disappear, that we must go back to work and back to school. He has directly discouraged reporters from wearing masks at press briefings and exaggerated the progress of a vaccine. First, he foisted the management of the pandemic on Vice President Mike Pence, then commandeered it so he could keynote the daily briefing, then abandoned the televised sessions because he’d made such a public relations botch of them only to pick them up again to spin the coming vaccine and therapeutics. In Trump’s mind, the best way to handle the pandemic on both the personal and policy levels has been to pretend it doesn’t exist, and that if it does, it’s not that important.
He wants you to believe that the worst of his infection has passed because he was strong enough to sit at a table and be photographed signing a document. He wants you to believe that he is getting better because he took a ride in a Secret Service SUV. He wants you to believe he’s out of the woods because he’s getting out of the hospital. “Don’t be afraid of Covid,” he wrote in his tweet Monday afternoon. “Don’t let it dominate your life”—an easy thing to say if you’re the recipient of the best (and free) 24-7 health care in the world. He wants you to believe that all is well because he’s “getting great reports from the doctors,” as he said in a Sunday video from Walter Reed. If he’s really getting such great reports from the docs, he must be the first sick person in history to conceal the actual evidence that he’s getting better.
As with Trump’s let’s-sweep-it-under-the-rug policy toward Covid-19, his decision to throttle the flow of information about his illness to a dribble has only encouraged speculation and criticism from the press and the medical establishment. His doctors continue to give us upbeat news about Trump’s health but decline to answer questions that might reflect poorly on his recovery. Consider: We know he contracted Covid-19, but we don’t know precisely when or the date of his last negative Covid-19 test. We know he had a fever on Friday but not how high it was. We know he was administered oxygen on Friday and that his blood-oxygen level dropped again on Saturday but his doctors won’t clarify whether he was given oxygen again. We don’t know if he suffered lung damage or if he had pneumonia. We don’t know how or where he contracted the disease but we know that at least 30 people (and counting) recently in his immediate orbit—wife Melania, White House and campaign staffers, senators, White House journalists, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the president of the University of Notre Dame, and others—have also tested positive. We also don’t know exactly why doctors treated Trump with the steroid dexamethasone, which is usually reserved for severe Covid-19 cases, or why doctors dosed him with experimental drugs. Has he lost the senses of taste and smell? And that’s only the overview (see Science magazine for more details).
As Trump returns to the White House, presumably still infectious, the press corps will meet him with a new round of questions. Will the president quarantine himself to the White House’s upstairs living quarters to prevent the contagion from spreading? Will Trump be isolated or will he be domiciled with his wife, who also has Covid-19? Who will be allowed to visit him, and what medical precautions will they take? How wise is it for him to return to the White House, which seems to be the center of an environmental cluster of infections? Are the experimental treatments continuing? When will we learn more about his medical history? Would Trump have been discharged if he had been an average person and not the president of the United States—and an accomplished bully?
Five days into Trump’s infection we still don’t know how ill he was. We still don’t know how ill he is. His long-term prognosis remains a mystery. We still don’t know if persisting symptoms will interfere with his work as president. All we really know for sure is that he’s ill and that he and his doctors continue to cover up the extent of his illness. It’s a very sick administration.
Send your viral load to [email protected]. My email alerts decline all health questions citing HIPAA regulations. My Twitter feed has a fever and blames its illness on my RSS feed, a well-known disease vector.