White House triggers new questions about Trump’s coronavirus case

A spate of White House statements on Saturday about President Donald Trump’s health spurred a wave of confusion and criticism about his path ahead and when precisely he was first diagnosed and treated for coronavirus.

The baffling back-and-forth began Saturday morning when Trump’s physician, Dr. Sean Conley, briefed the press outside Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where the president has been since Friday night. Conley proclaimed Trump was “doing very well,” that his fever had subsided, that his symptoms were improving and that he wasn’t receiving supplemental oxygen.

But only minutes after Conley left the microphone, the White House press pool reporter conveyed a statement from “a source familiar with the president’s health” that appeared to directly contradict the rosy portrait. “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,” the statement said. “We’re still not on a clear path to a full recovery.” The remark came shortly after cameras caught White House chief of staff Mark Meadows asking to speak with a handful of reporters away from the cameras.

Conley and Trump’s medical team also sent shockwaves through the White House and political landscape with their timeline of Trump’s first positive coronavirus test. During the briefing, the doctors said it had been 72 hours since Trump was diagnosed with coronavirus, suggesting Trump knew about his status on Wednesday, well before he revealed it overnight Thursday into Friday. That would mean Trump had gone on with his normal schedule, traveling and working in close proximity to aides and staffers, for well over a full day.

Yet again, though, the White House scrambled minutes after the briefing to clarify the timeline from the medical team. Another White House aide said the doctor had meant to say “day 3” instead of “72 hours,” since Trump had been diagnosed Thursday night. Conley made the clarification official a few hours later, releasing what amounted to the fourth statement of the day from the White House.

It was a head-spinning sequence reflective of a White House — and president — not always known for transparency on health matters. As a candidate, Trump infamously had his doctor declare he would be the “healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.” And as president, Trump’s former physician triggered eyerolls when he claimed the president could have lived to “200 years old” with a better diet. The White House has also given head-scratching explanations for an unusual trip to Walter Reed last year.

“The world has to know whether the president of the United States is in good health,” said Scott Jennings, who worked for President George W. Bush and is close to the Trump White House. “You cannot have inconsistent reports about the president’s health.”

“I am stunned that the White House put the president’s doctor out there and then issued a contradictory statement,” he added. “You can’t do that. This just invites questions about what’s going on there.”

Since the coronavirus hit the U.S., the White House has similarly been coy at times about staffers testing positive, with some of the more notable infections only being confirmed after leaks to the press.

Saturday’s roundabout information release left some in the White House bewildered, capping off over a day of minimal communication between White House leaders and their staff.

One White House official said most officials were receiving the same updates as the press — no more, no less. Another White House aide complained about being perpetually in the dark about not just the president’s health, but about coronavirus infections among the staff.

“I might as well be a member of the public,” the aide said, saying officials felt nervous and upset about the lack of information.

Still, Saturday’s briefing was the most thorough update on Trump’s health since the diagnosis was revealed early Friday.

Conley said he was “extremely happy with the progress the president has made,” noting that the first several days are critical to determining how a coronavirus infection will progress. Trump’s medical team also said the president is fever-free and not currently on supplemental oxygen — a step frequently needed for patients with severe coronavirus cases.

“Yesterday and today he has not been on oxygen,” Conley said, though his careful comment indicated he may have been on supplemental oxygen while he was at the White House.

For the first time, Conley revealed specifics on some of Trump’s vitals, noting that his blood pressure and heart rate were both within Trump’s normal range. Conley also said Trump’s oxygen saturation — the level of the gas in his blood — was 96 percent, squarely within the normal range.

Yet Conley was hesitant to indicate how soon the president might be discharged from the hospital.

“I don’t want to put a hard date on that,” he said.

Conley appeared in front of a Walter Reed building flanked by nine masked members of the medical team, part of a large team of experts positioned to monitor the president closely.

But at least a couple of them appeared to be playing to the cameras — perhaps for Trump watching closely inside — with their framing of his condition.

At the end of his prepared remarks, Conley looked toward Meadows and smiled as he conveyed a message. “One other note: It should be clear that he’s got plenty of work to get done from the chief of staff,” Conley said.

Another physician, Dr. Sean Dooley, said Trump was in “exceptionally good spirits” and said Trump told them, “I feel like I could walk out of here today.”

Still, the medical team acknowledged that the five-day treatment Trump is receiving could keep him in the hospital into Tuesday or Wednesday.

Trump, for his part, made his own effort to establish his narrative a few hours after the medical team briefing.

“Doctors, Nurses and ALL at the GREAT Walter Reed Medical Center, and others from likewise incredible institutions who have joined them, are AMAZING!!!Tremendous progress has been made over the last 6 months in fighting this PLAGUE. With their help, I am feeling well!” he tweeted.

The president has been largely silent since announcing he had Covid-19 — dropping his obsessive tweeting habit and not making any appearances. Throughout Friday, it was left to aides and allies to provide insight into his “mild symptoms.” Then, early Friday evening, the White House said it was taking Trump to Walter Reed hospital out of an “abundance of caution” for “a few days.” In a memo before the trip, Conley described the president as “fatigued but in good spirits.”

The sudden silence from Trump started to worry aides and allies, who fretted about the president’s status as they waited for guidance on how to message the situation.

Later that night, Conley revealed the president had started taking the antiviral drug remdesivir and was “doing very well.” Preliminary data has shown the drug can help reduce recovery time for hospitalized coronavirus patients. But research has been inconclusive on whether the drug lowers the risk of death.

Trump has also completed an infusion of an experimental antibody drug produced by Regeneron — receiving the highest dosage being tested in the ongoing clinical trial — and is taking aspirin, zinc and vitamin D.

Notably, there was no significant information released on Trump’s vitals, such as his oxygen levels or blood pressure. Conley did say late Friday that Trump was not receiving supplemental oxygen.

To this point, Trump’s only public appearance related to his condition has been a brief, 18-second video he released before going to Walter Reed, thanking his supporters and proclaiming, “I think I’m doing very well.” He reiterated the message in a late-night tweet: “Going welI, I think! Thank you to all. LOVE!!!”

Late Friday night, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy tweeted that he had spoken by phone with Trump, calling the president “upbeat” and predicting: “Our president is strong and will beat the virus!”

With Trump in the hospital, Vice President Mike Pence has remained in his residence, even as the Trump campaign on Saturday announced Pence would headline a MAGA rally in Arizona on Thursday. Pence tested negative for Covid-19 on Friday and stepped in for Trump to host a scheduled conference call on the coronavirus that afternoon. Pence’s schedule for Saturday indicated he would remain at home. If Trump’s condition worsens, the 25th Amendment allows for the president to transfer his powers to the vice president.

Trump’s infection is part of an outbreak that has raced through the White House, the Trump campaign and Republican senators on Capitol Hill.

The first indication of a viral spread appeared Thursday evening when the White House confirmed that Hope Hicks, a close Trump aide who travels regularly with the president, had contracted the disease. Then a cascade of positive tests were revealed over the next 36 hours — Trump’s campaign manager, the head of the Republican National Committee and three GOP senators were just a few of people affected.

The infections are likely linked to several Republican gatherings over the last week.

Last Saturday, the White House held a Rose Garden ceremony to introduce Amy Coney Barrett, Trump’s pick to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court. Attendees at the event were largely maskless, and there were indoor receptions before and after the outdoor ceremony.

In the days that followed, the president traveled to several rallies and the first presidential debate, repeatedly putting him and his top aides in close proximity on helicopters and planes.

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