But Trump has brushed aside his advisers’ calls for caution, instead embracing a political strategy built on playing down the virus and using his own battle with it to argue that the nation has already overcome the pandemic.
“People are going to get immediately better like I did. I mean, I feel better now than I did two weeks ago. It’s crazy,” Trump told Rush Limbaugh on his talk radio show Friday, a day when more than 850 Americans died of the coronavirus. “And I recovered immediately, almost immediately. I might not have recovered at all from covid.”
Isolated in the White House for a fifth straight day as his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, campaigned in Nevada, Trump spent several hours Friday venting to friendly media hosts and plotting his swift return to the campaign trail even as the status of his coronavirus infection remained unclear.
As the president participated in a televised medical evaluation on Fox News on Friday evening, his aides began to plan for what they described as a triumphant return to campaigning in the wake of his diagnosis and four-day hospitalization.
Trump’s campaign announced that he would lead a rally in Florida on Monday at an airport hangar, similar to the events he had been doing before his diagnosis. There was no indication that extra safety precautions would be in place or that social distancing would be encouraged.
“All attendees will be given a temperature check, masks which they are encouraged to wear and access to hand sanitizer,” the campaign said, using language similar to previous announcements before events where few attendees wore masks.
While Trump’s doctor said Thursday that he expected the president to be able to resume his public engagements as early as Saturday, the White House did not provide evidence Friday that Trump had received a negative test for the coronavirus.
In the Fox News interview late Friday, Trump said he had been retested for the virus but did not know the results.
“I haven’t even found out numbers or anything yet, but I’ve been retested,” he said. “And I know I’m at either the bottom of the scale or free.”
He added that he has been tested for the virus “every couple of days or so.” Neither the White House nor Trump’s medical team has released the results of those tests.
The lack of a negative test did not stop Trump from claiming to be cured and working as normal from the Oval Office, where an official said he spent Friday afternoon. Trump has been eager to escape the confines of the White House and return to his crowded rallies with the election just over three weeks away.
A week after he was transported to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center with serious symptoms of covid-19, Trump and his campaign have embraced an it’s-not-that-bad messaging strategy about a virus that has killed more than 213,000 Americans.
The president has claimed to be immune, called his infection with the virus a “blessing from God” and falsely claimed that a cure exists for a disease that continues to kill thousands of Americans each week. His campaign has continued to hold large indoor events with surrogates, shunning social distancing. It has made little effort to engage in contact tracing after dozens of White House officials and campaign surrogates contracted the disease.
Trump’s event Saturday is scheduled to take place not far from the location of a Sept. 26 celebration now considered a superspreader event by public health officials after several attendees tested positive for the coronavirus. Trump will speak to a group organized by conservative activist Candace Owens.
The event, which the White House called a “peaceful protest for law & order,” was supported by Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, according to two aides. Other officials opposed it.
It’s not clear how strictly the White House will enforce safety measures to ensure that participants at the event avoid virus-spreading behavior. Attendees must bring a mask and will be instructed to wear it while at the White House, according to a person familiar with the group’s planning. Hundreds of supporters are expected to attend.
“All attendees must submit to a covid-19 screening tomorrow morning. This will consist of a temperature check and a brief questionnaire,” the person said, making no mention of social distancing measures.
The last event at the White House featuring Owens involved hundreds of Black conservatives. ABC News earlier reported the details of Saturday’s event.
Trump’s rally Monday in Sanford, Fla., is expected to kick off a string of events across the country in front of large crowds. Campaign aides and White House officials said Trump will be barnstorming the nation as soon as it’s known that he has tested negative for the coronavirus and is no longer infectious.
His surrogates have already returned to traveling across the country and holding events that flout public health guidelines. Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr. headlined a crowded rally Thursday in Panama City Beach, Fla., with several dozen unmasked people gathered indoors. Vice President Pence has also been holding frequent events, often indoors.
Trump was inclined to travel to Florida in the coming days in part because state restrictions on large crowds are less onerous than in other swing states, according to aides.
He originally was supposed to travel to Miami for a second presidential debate Thursday against Biden. Uncertainty over Trump’s coronavirus infection led the Commission on Presidential Debates to change the format to a virtual event, after which the president pulled out.
On Friday, the commission officially canceled the town hall debate, citing the fact that both Trump and Biden had made other plans for that evening, according to a knowledgeable source. The two candidates have agreed to appear in Nashville for a debate on Oct. 22, which will be a traditional debate and not a town hall meeting.
Biden, once mocked by Trump for supposedly spending too much time in his basement, has done his most consistent traveling over the past week as Trump has been sidelined. His events have looked much different from Trump’s crowded rallies.
Campaigning in Las Vegas on Friday, Biden spoke to a group of about 20 Latino leaders, all wearing masks, who stood inside white circles the campaign had taped on the ground to help them remain socially distant. Behind Biden were several “Biden-Harris” and “Vote Early Nevada” signs, as well as a mariachi band, whose members were also socially distanced and wearing masks.
Biden rattled off sobering recent statistics on the Latino community — 40,000 dead of the coronavirus nationwide, 3 million who have lost their jobs, 1 in 3 businesses that have closed — and blamed the “incompetence” of the Trump administration.
The president is hoping that his return to the campaign trail will help him make up a steep polling deficit in the race’s final days, according to aides. He has been encouraged to prosecute the case against Biden by drawing a contrast with the former vice president on issues including taxes, fracking and environmental regulations.
But despite the cautiously optimistic hopes of Trump’s team, the president on Friday yet again demonstrated a stubborn inability to stay on message, calling in to Limbaugh’s radio show for a freewheeling, falsehood-laden conversation that stretched for two hours and ended only when the radio host cut Trump off with music and declared, with scant evidence, “I know you’ve got a jam-packed day left on your schedule.”
Limbaugh began the show by encouraging Trump to do what his advisers have long counseled: emerge from his coronavirus experience a sympathetic figure who can better relate to the American public.
“Today I want people to get to know the Donald Trump that I know,” Limbaugh said, adding, “You care deeply about the country, you care about everybody.”
Trump, however, spent much of the interview revealing a more familiar, combative side, lacing into figures from the media and Hillary Clinton to Attorney General William P. Barr. When informed of an Axios report that Barr had told congressional Republicans that the Justice Department’s review of the origins of the Russia investigation would not come out before the election, Trump sharply criticized Barr.
“I think it’s a terrible thing, and I’ll say it to his face,” Trump said. He also called the development “a disgrace” and “an embarrassment.”
During the interview, Trump claimed that he wanted to approve a larger stimulus package than even what Democrats are offering in ongoing negotiations, undercutting the Senate Republicans who have warned against too much spending.
Trump also lashed out at the Commission on Presidential Debates, claiming without evidence that its leaders were biased against him for changing the format for the planned town hall after he contracted the virus.
Meanwhile, the White House continued to dodge questions Friday about when Trump last tested negative for the coronavirus, complicating efforts to determine how many people he may have infected.
More than a week after Trump’s last campaign rally, there has been no contact between the Trump campaign and Minnesota state health officials seeking lists of attendees linked to the Sept. 30 event in Duluth. State officials said they were unaware of any positive tests among those who gathered there to see Trump.
However, Minnesota Department of Health infectious-disease director Kris Ehresmann told reporters Friday that nine people who had attended Trump’s Sept. 18 rally in Bemidji, Minn., had tested positive for the coronavirus. One case involved a person who was known to be infectious at the rally, she said. Two attendees were later hospitalized after testing positive, including one who was in intensive care.
Holly Bailey and Dan Balz contributed to this report.