At a news conference at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda on Saturday morning, Trump’s medical team suggested that the president tested positive for the virus earlier than initially disclosed by the president. Trump’s physician, Sean P. Conley, later issued a “clarification” through the White House on that timeline, as well as the time frame in which the president was administered Regeneron, an antibody cocktail that is part of the complement of drugs Trump has taken to fend off the virus.
Conley also declined to answer specific questions about the president’s health, including how high his fever rose in recent days, when he last tested negative for the virus and whether he was ever administered supplemental oxygen since being diagnosed. A senior administration official later confirmed that Trump was given supplemental oxygen at the White House on Friday before going to Walter Reed.
The questions raised by the news conferences and subsequent comments from White House aides further fueled a credibility problem that has plagued the administration from the start, as the statements only raised more questions about the president’s medical condition.
For his part, Trump tweeted that he was “feeling well” Saturday afternoon, his first comments of the day hours after his physicians told reporters that the president was in “exceptionally good spirits.” Early Saturday evening, he tweeted out a video where he said that “I came here, wasn’t feeling so well, I feel much better now.” Trump went to Walter Reed on Friday evening, and the White House said he is expected to stay there several days while doctors monitor him.
Saturday evening, a statement from Conley released by the White House press secretary said that Trump has made “substantial progress” since his coronavirus diagnosis and will be closely monitored Sunday in between doses of an experimental drug.
At the Saturday morning news conference, members of Trump’s medical team said the president is now fever-free and that they are “extremely happy” with the progress he has made. But Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, then told reporters at the event that Trump went through a “very concerning” period over the past day. Meadows also said the next two days will be key.
“The president’s vitals over the last 24 hours were very concerning and the next 48 hours will be critical in terms of his care,” Meadows said. “We’re still not on a clear path to a full recovery.”
The statement led to confusion, both because of how it was made public and because it seemed to contradict what the president’s doctors said minutes earlier.
The statement from Meadows was originally distributed to the media through a White House pool report and was attributed to “a source familiar with the president’s health.” Two White House officials familiar with the statement, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the issue, later said it was Meadows who spoke with reporters. Meadows was also seen on camera pulling reporters aside to talk after the news conference ended. The Associated Press, which had a reporter at the event, also later identified Meadows as the source of the comment.
Meadows, who had stayed with Trump overnight Friday at Walter Reed, did not respond to a request for comment. The chief of staff told other officials on Saturday morning that the president was doing okay, according to White House aides.
Saturday night, in an interview on Fox News, Meadows said that Friday morning, Trump “had a fever and a blood oxygen level that dropped rapidly, and yet, in typical style, this president was up and walking around.”
Trump was angry with Meadows about his Saturday afternoon comments indicating the president was quite sick and has asked aides to reassure the public by offering rosy depictions of his condition, a senior administration official said.
Meadows has been the only White House aide with Trump, giving him almost total control of the message.
The comments from the president’s top aide prompted finger-pointing in the West Wing. Some White House officials said they were not pleased with Meadows for briefing reporters anonymously about Trump’s health.
“It was of zero help to us,” said one of them, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal tensions.
A second official said: “We have not communicated with the public well on this.”
Several White House aides also said they also did not have confidence in what they were being told by other officials.
“I can tell you what I am hearing, but I honestly have no idea if it’s right,” said one senior administration official close to the president. “A lot of people aren’t even telling other people in the building the truth.”
Meadows’s stewardship of the White House during the pandemic is also facing some internal criticism after Trump’s diagnosis.
Three different officials said Meadows had not taken the virus seriously enough, not forcing staffers to wear masks and sometimes orchestrating large meetings around the president where officials did not use face coverings.
Inside the building, two of these officials said, he has pushed back against arguments made by doctors and has questioned the science behind masks. He has regularly traveled with extraneous people on Air Force One, the officials said, including his wife and family members.
“He is not someone who preaches that you should be scared of the virus,” one senior administration official said.
The question of transparency surrounding Trump’s health focused on two issues: the public’s right to know about the condition of the commander in chief and to what degree Trump and his aides may have exposed others to the virus who should know so they can tend to their own health.
“Consistency and accuracy on messaging the president’s health condition is important,” said Tom Bossert, the president’s former homeland security adviser. “And we haven’t seen consistency. I can’t speak to accuracy, and neither can you.”
Trump and his aides traveled frequently during the week and came into contact with many people. Since Tuesday, Trump appeared with thousands at a rally in Minnesota, debated Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden onstage in Cleveland and met with donors Thursday at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J. He has also interacted with numerous aides, lawmakers and political advisers at the White House and on the road.
These events are potentially venues where the infection could have been spread to others.
“The president should not have attended the fundraiser and placed negligently all the people in attendance at risk of contracting the disease,” Bossert said.
Saturday evening, Trump posted a four-minute video on his Twitter account updating the public on his condition, acknowledging that “we still have steps to go” in his recovery.
Trump said he was given the option to stay at the White House but was told he would be confined to the upstairs presidential residence as he battled the virus — which Trump also referred to as “whatever you want to call it.”
“I can’t do that — I had to be out front,” Trump said. “I can’t be locked up in a room upstairs.”
Meadows’s assessment earlier Saturday of the president’s health was in direct contrast with the evaluation provided by Conley, who said that Trump was doing well, his condition was improving and that his fever had eased. But the doctor wouldn’t provide specific answers about whether Trump has received oxygen, the timeline of the president’s diagnosis or what a lung scan has shown.
Conley was asked several times if and when Trump received supplemental oxygen but provided indirect answers.
“He’s not on oxygen right now,” Conley said. “He’s not needed any this morning. Today at all.”
Conley said the president is receiving daily ultrasounds and lab work, but when asked if scans of his lungs have shown damage, the doctor said he wouldn’t “go into specifics of what the findings are.” The physician also wouldn’t provide an estimated date for the president’s discharge from the hospital.
On a key issue important for determining how many others Trump could have potentially infected, Conley declined to say when the president last tested negative for the virus.
At the beginning of his remarks, Conley said Trump was “just 72 hours into the diagnosis now,” which could mean he was diagnosed as early as Wednesday morning — just 11 hours after he shared a debate stage with Biden, hours before he held a campaign rally in Minnesota and a day before a Thursday fundraiser in New Jersey. Trump revealed his diagnosis at 1 a.m. on Friday only after it was made public that counselor to the president Hope Hicks had contracted the virus.
A “clarification” memo issued under Conley’s name later Saturday said he meant to say Trump was in “day three of his diagnosis,” rather than “72 hours.” Conley also revisited a statement made by another doctor at the Walter Reed news conference, saying the medical team meant “day two” rather than “48 hours” since the administration of a Regeneron antibody cocktail.
In the memo — in which Regeneron was misspelled — Conley said Trump was diagnosed with covid-19 on Thursday evening and received the antibody cocktail on Friday.
The president is receiving remdesivir, an antiviral drug that has shown modest benefits for some people, as well as vitamin D, famotidine, melatonin and aspirin.
The confusion flared as more people close to Trump confirmed over the past two days that they had tested positive for the virus. The latest people infected include Bill Stepien, the president’s campaign manager, and former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who was closely involved in preparing Trump for the Cleveland debate and was present at the White House over the weekend. Christie said later Saturday that he checked himself into a hospital in northern New Jersey.
Christie adds to the coterie of people known to be diagnosed with the virus who also attended a crowded, celebratory Rose Garden event on Sept. 26 announcing Judge Amy Coney Barrett as Trump’s pick to replace Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court. The others included Trump, first lady Melania Trump, Republican Sens. Thom Tillis (N.C.) and Mike Lee (Utah), and former presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway. University of Notre Dame President John I. Jenkins, and an unidentified member of the White House press corps. Pence and his wife, Karen, tested negative again Saturday for the virus, according to an administration official.
The repercussions of the increasing number of covid-19 cases spread to the Capitol, where Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) announced Saturday that he was canceling floor votes until Oct. 19 as three GOP senators in recent days announced they had contracted the disease and several others said they would quarantine as a precaution after exposure to people who tested positive.
Aides to Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said Saturday that he tested positive for the virus.
Republican leaders emphasized that Barrett’s confirmation hearing will proceed as scheduled on Oct. 12, despite at least two members of the Judiciary Committee testing positive for covid-19 and others quarantining as a precaution. Panel Chairman Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), has said anyone who wants to participate in the confirmation hearing remotely can do so.
Yet Democrats criticized the move and said a position as consequential as an appointment to the Supreme Court deserved a hearing where all senators could be present, and they pressed Graham for a delay.
Elsewhere in Trump’s administration and campaign, it appeared to be business as usual.
The Trump campaign announced that Pence would travel to Arizona, a state that Republicans are scrambling to keep in their column, on Thursday.
The event is scheduled to be held at a facility that makes military tactical gear, and tickets are available to the public. It’s unclear whether the event will be held indoors. The Trump campaign did not immediately respond to several questions about any virus precautions that will be taken, including whether masks or social distancing will be required.