President Donald Trump’s carefully crafted image of power and control took brutal blows over the past few days, as he and dozens of his closest confidants tested positive for the coronavirus.
His Twitter feed went conspicuously quiet on Friday as the 74-year-old president was taken to Walter Reed Medical Center. He appeared wan in video statements, and the mixed messages he and his political supporters have sent about not only the president’s health, but also precautions against Covid-19, blew up in the national conscience.
The challenge now for team Trump: How to spin the situation into a positive, less than a month from Election Day.
His allies have tried to connect the president’s experience to the pain of millions of Americans affected by the deadly virus, but they haven’t used the experience to send a broader public-health message about a pandemic that has killed around 210,000 people in the U.S. They have instead presented, in a series of TV appearances and tweets, a testament to Trump’s resilience by asserting that he has overcome the disease.
He and his surrogates are now portraying the president as having personally vanquished the virus — and they continue to skirt any suggestion of his complicity in its spread while largely ignoring the dire signs of his condition.
Their defense is to push the president’s diagnosis almost as a boost to his qualifications. Piggybacking off the campaign’s criticisms of Joe Biden as a challenger relegated to his basement, Trump’s team has portrayed the president’s Covid case as an insight into the disease that the Democractic nominee could never have.
“He has experience as commander in chief. He has experience as a businessman,” a Trump campaign spokeswoman, Erin Perrine, said Monday on Fox News. “He has experience now of fighting the coronavirus as an individual. Those firsthand experiences, Joe Biden, he doesn’t have those.”
In a video to his supporters on Sunday, Trump said that he had “learned a lot about Covid.”
“I learned it by really going to school,” the president said. “This is the real school. This isn’t the let’s-read-the-book school. And I get it. And I understand it. And it’s a very interesting thing, and I’m going to be letting you know about it.”
But the approach hasn’t led the surge in public support that often follows a leader’s health crisis. His critics continue to question why he and his staff had continuously disregarded health officials’ advice on how to stop the spread of the disease. The recent burst in cases in the White House, they point out, was probably tied to a number of in-person events where allies of the president rubbed elbows in tight quarters while not wearing masks.
Even after his diagnosis, the president continued to act in ways that put his staff in danger of contagion. In a brief foray outside the hospital on Sunday, he greeted supporters from an armored, sealed SUV — potentially putting Secret Service agents in direct contact with the virus. It was a move meant to shore up support, but led to a frenzy of condemnation.
Trump’s camp has made it clear that the president’s stint in the hospital — he was discharged on Monday evening — wasn’t changing their approach to the virus. The campaign snubbed the use of plexiglass separators at the upcoming vice presidential debate, and upon arriving at the White House, Trump removed his mask for a photo op even though he’s likely still contagious.
If anything, it has become a talking point to boost the president as capable of meeting any challenge at the cost of minimizing the virus’ risks.
“We’re not going to surrender to it like Joe Biden would surrender to this virus,” Mercedes Schlapp, a Trump campaign adviser, said Monday on Fox News. “And at the end of the day, we know that the president is doing well.”
“Our campaign is full speed with operation MAGA. We’re not going to stop,” she said, adding that “there are no gaps” in the campaign’s chain of command, even though its manager, Bill Stepien, tested positive for the virus.
Trump implored supporters via Twitter on Monday: “Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life. We have developed, under the Trump Administration, some really great drugs & knowledge. I feel better than I did 20 years ago!”
The tweet failed to account for the fact that many of the people most vulnerable to coronavirus seldom have access to the level of health care the president received. It also severely undercut the serious warnings health experts have been sharing for months about the virus, which can have a vast array of effects on different people, from mild symptoms to organ failure.
Regardless, Trump’s allies in Congress have joined the president in pushing similar messages. Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.) tweeted a video of Trump wrestling a man whose head was replaced with a rendition of the coronavirus. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) tweeted Monday: “President Trump won’t have to recover from COVID. COVID will have to recover from President Trump.”
“We have learned two things among others, but two things stood out in my mind,” Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) said on Fox News. “Number one, it’s very contagious. And number two, it is not nearly as lethal as the experts told us it was going to be.”
More than 200,000 Americans have died from the disease, and case spikes have been directly linked to a disregard for social-distancing and mask-wearing guidelines. Many patients who don’t die from the disease endure debilitating side effects that can last for months.
When speaking to reporters about his condition, Trump’s doctors often scrubbed their updates of the potentially more damning details. They dodged questions on his vitals, opting instead to push optimistic updates on his condition. When White House chief of staff Mark Meadows revealed to reporters on Saturday that Trump’s condition was far more precarious than his doctors had presented, it led to a frenzy of confusion and sowed doubt in the ostensibly apolitical medical professionals.
In a defense of the doctors’ actions, a White House spokeswoman, Alyssa Farah, told reporters on Sunday: “When you’re treating a patient, you want to project confidence, you want to lift their spirits and that was the intent. But, of course, chief of staff Meadows came out to give you guys more information just to try to be as transparent as we can.”
Dr. Sean Conley, the president’s physician, acknowledged Monday that Trump was not “out of the woods” yet, but continued to stonewall on questions about Trump’s lung scan and the timing of his last negative Covid test.
As for the president, he continued to project a sense of business as usual as he left Walter Reed. He publicly left the hospital unassisted, and shot a thumbs-up and fist pumps to reporters as he got into his car.
“Will be back on the Campaign Trail soon!!!” Trump tweeted Monday evening. “The Fake News only shows the Fake Polls.”
In a video he tweeted on Monday evening, Trump reiterated his call not to be afraid of the coronavirus. He said he knew there was a risk, but “I stood out front. I led.”