Craig A. Spencer doesn’t usually dwell on the time in October 2014 when Donald Trump lashed out at the New York doctor, who had just returned from treating Ebola patients in Guinea, for patronizing businesses and riding the subway before feeling symptomatic and having the illness diagnosed.
But on a day in which President Trump returned to the White House and removed his mask in public despite still being contagious with the novel coronavirus, Spencer couldn’t let Monday pass without referencing an old Trump tweet directed at him.
“I followed all public health guidance and infected no one,” Spencer, who recuperated from Ebola without spreading it, tweeted late Monday. “You’ve unnecessarily exposed numerous people over the last few days, your administration is refusing to do contact tracing, and there’s an outbreak in the White House because of your dangerous disregard of public health.”
At a time when the president has said that people should not be afraid of an illness that has already killed more than 209,000 Americans, commentators on Monday pointed to his 2014 critique of Spencer in questioning Trump’s public health practices. Although Trump said he had recovered from the coronavirus, his doctor, Sean Conley, stressed that the president was “not out of the woods yet,” and remains contagious. The president returns to a White House that has had more than a dozen officials test positive for the coronavirus in recent days.
“It’s hypocrisy. That’s all it is,” CNN’s Chris Cuomo said Monday on his show, as he played audio of Trump’s 2014 attacks on Spencer. “He’s the president now. That very selfish person he was talking about? It’s you.” Cuomo added that the way the president continues to play down the virus is equivalent to “a drunk driver who tells other people to drive drunk.”
Among those critics is Spencer, the director of global health in emergency medicine at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center. Since the start of the pandemic in the United States, Spencer, 39, has become one of the president’s most vocal opponents in the medical world, frequently calling out Trump for doubting public health professionals and science.
In an interview Monday evening with The Washington Post, Spencer reiterated a question he had posed on the NBC streaming service Peacock earlier in the evening: “If the president cannot keep the White House safe, how can he keep the country safe?”
“I think someone said to me, ‘Oh, this must feel really weird kind of reflecting on this and what he said in 2014.’ But that’s not the weird part,” Spencer told The Post. “What feels weird for me is fighting against, as opposed to with, the president to end the deadliest pandemic in the last century.”
Before he caught Trump’s attention, Spencer had traveled to Guinea in the fall of 2014 to help treat Ebola patients as a volunteer for Doctors Without Borders. Months had passed since the start of Ebola epidemic in West Africa in early 2014, the most widespread outbreak of its kind in history, and Spencer had treated scores of sick patients, including many children, during his five weeks in the region.
Spencer exhibited no symptoms upon returning to New York on Oct. 17, 2014, and proceeded to resume his everyday life with his then-fiancee at their Harlem apartment. Although he felt some exhaustion, he chalked it up to a long trip home and the depression he felt from the suffering he had seen in Guinea, he later wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine. Some of his activities during that first week back included walking along the High Line, eating in Greenwich Village and bowling in Williamsburg.
Then, on the morning of Oct. 23, 2014, Spencer reported having a fever of 100.3 to Doctors Without Borders and the New York City Health Department, and was transferred to Bellevue Hospital Center. Shortly thereafter, he had tested positive for Ebola, the city’s first case. He’d soon become too weak to move, losing 20 pounds and struggling to make it to the bathroom up to a dozen times each day.
As his liver was failing and his fiancee was quarantined in their apartment, New York tabloids speculated whether Ebola could be spread by touching a bowling ball, prompting the hashtag #Ebowla. Eric Bolling, then a host with Fox News, tweeted how he had “ABSOLUTELY NO SYMPATHY” for Spencer. Public officials such as New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) suggested that the doctor had been careless by being in public so often when he felt exhausted. Doctors Without Borders pushed back against that criticism, saying that Spencer had followed all the recommended protocols when he returned.
That mattered little to the host of “The Apprentice,” who had made banning flights from Africa a regular talking point on Twitter and in appearances stumping for Republican candidates. Trump grew so enraged about Spencer’s case that he demanded that President Barack Obama apologize and resign.
“They were supposed to be home, self-quarantine, except they decided to go out and, you know, have a good time,” he told Fox News that week.
It wasn’t until after Spencer was Ebola-free following 19 days of treatment that he became aware of the attention he had received from the reality TV star. Years later, Spencer stressed that he “wouldn’t take any risk that would impact anyone in public.”
“I knew that in 2014 and I was still dragged under the bus,” he said.
In recent months, Spencer has treated hundreds of coronavirus patients in New York, documenting life as an emergency room doctor during the pandemic as a guest opinions contributor for The Post. He has not shied away from his disdain for Trump or his handling of the public health crisis. Spencer pointed to the president’s video statement on Sunday about how he had “learned a lot” during his diagnosis, with Trump adding that his treatment was “the real school” for understanding the virus.
All Spencer could do around midnight was reflect on what the president’s sentiments regarding the virus means right now.
“For some reason, this now has made him more of an authoritative voice on covid, unlike the doctors treating patients who’ve died and having to tell their families over grainy video connections that their loved ones are dead. It’s just not equivalent,” Spencer said. “The fact that he can’t understand that eight months into a pandemic is so f---ing maddening.”