President Donald Trump’s medical team acknowledged on Sunday that he had experienced concerning drops in his oxygen saturation levels in his battle with the coronavirus, while also saying that the president could be discharged from the hospital “as early as tomorrow.”
But the president himself made a surprise appearance outside of Walter Reed Medical Center on Sunday afternoon, waving to a crowd of cheering supporters — standing close to one another, many without masks — from his motorcade before returning to the presidential suite in the hospital.
The timing on a potential release from Walter Reed, where Trump has been since Friday, was a change from the more cautious assessment the president’s physician, Sean Conley, gave on Saturday, when he declined to “put a hard date” on a possible discharge.
During a briefing on Trump’s health on Sunday morning, Conley confirmed the president had received supplemental oxygen while at the White House on Friday morning — a step frequently taken in more serious coronavirus cases. Conley on Saturday had avoided acknowledging Trump’s need for supplemental oxygen before arriving at Walter Reed.
“I was trying to reflect the upbeat attitude that the team, the president, that his course of illness has had,” Conley said when asked about his obfuscation. “I didn’t want to give any information that might steer the course of illness in another direction. And in doing so, you know, it came off that we were trying to hide something, which wasn’t necessarily true.”
Separately, Conley also revealed that the president had been given dexamethasone, a decades-old steroid. The announcement concerned medical experts because the drug is typically recommended only for patients with severe or critical cases of Covid-19.
British scientists reported in June that dexamethasone, which quiets the immune system, reduced the risk of death for patients who required supplemental oxygen or ventilator assistance. While the drug can aid those severely ill patients, whose symptoms are often the result of an immune system in overdrive, it can also harm those who are not as sick by hampering the body’s ability to fight off the virus.
The Sunday briefing was Conley’s second since Trump was hospitalized on Friday, just hours after he announced that he had tested positive.
His first briefing, held Saturday morning, kicked off a whiplash day of information that left White House aides bewildered and the public befuddled about the actual state of the president’s health.
Sunday’s briefing began with a clear attempt to lay out a more concrete timeline of Trump’s illness, going back to the initial diagnosis Thursday night. Conley said Trump was “doing well” that night, but by Friday morning had “a high fever” and oxygen saturation levels that were “transiently dipping below 94 percent,” outside of normal range.
Conley said that given those two factors, he was “concerned for possible rapid progression of the illness.” He then decided to administer supplemental oxygen, even though the president was “fairly adamant he didn’t need it.” Trump, he said, received oxygen for “about an hour” and improved quickly, moving about the White House residence hours later.
“Despite this,” he added, “everyone agreed the best course of action was to go to Walter Reed.”
The rundown provided official confirmation for the first time about episodes that were only rumored or discussed anonymously by White House officials throughout Saturday, muddling any understanding of Trump’s true condition.
It began in the morning, when Conley and Trump’s medical team came out to paint a rosy picture for reporters of Trump’s status, proclaiming that he was “doing very well.”
But within minutes, the White House started undermining that message. White House chief of staff Mark Meadows gave reporters on the scene an anonymous quote saying that Trump’s condition had been “very concerning” over the previous day and warning, “The next 48 hours will be critical.” (A video surfaced online showing Meadows asking to speak to a pool of reporters outside Walter Reed off the record, making clear who was quoted in a press pool report to a broader group of journalists as “a source familiar with the president’s health.”)
Soon, indications were piling up that Trump might have received supplemental oxygen while at the White House on Friday, even though Conley had said Trump had not been on supplemental oxygen the previous day.
Conley also created potential discrepancies in the timeline he laid out for Trump’s Covid-19 diagnosis. He initially indicated that the president had first tested positive more than a full day before he stopped working and traveling maskless in tight quarters. Conley later clarified that he had meant to say “day 3” instead of “72 hours,” confirming that Trump was diagnosed on Thursday.
On Saturday night, Trump himself tried to set the record straight.
In a discursive, four-minute video released on Twitter, he contradicted Meadows and other officials who had framed his health status as worrisome before he left for the hospital. “I just didn’t want to stay in the White House,” he said. “I was given that alternative.”
The White House then buttressed the video with two photos of the president sitting at his desk, reading and signing papers.
Journalists appeared to uncover that the video was deceptively edited to try to remove the president’s cough and noted that the images were taken just 10 minutes apart, suggesting they were staged photo ops rather than candid portraits of a president at work. Both revelations have gone viral.
After the president’s motorcade outing on Sunday afternoon, the White House Correspondents Association issued a statement that spoke to the opaque and contradictory nature of communications from the White House.
“It is outrageous for the president to have left the hospital — even briefly — amid a health crisis without a protective pool present to ensure that the American people know where their president is and how he is doing,” the statement said. “Now more than ever, the American public deserves independent coverage of the president so they can be reliably informed about his health.”
Before that brief trip, Trump notably hadn’t appeared live since Thursday, not even to phone into friendly networks like Fox News for interviews. Instead, a president who enjoys the spotlight has minimized his tweets and relied on allies like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, his lawyer Rudy Giuliani, and other White House staff and campaign officials to deliver messages on his behalf.
Later Saturday evening, Meadows went on Fox News to say that Trump had improved that day, but again noted that he and Trump’s doctor were “very concerned” on Friday about the president’s fever and oxygen saturation levels.
And then late Saturday night, the White House released another memo from Conley saying the president “continues to do well,” without a fever and not requiring supplemental oxygen. “While not yet out of the woods, the team remains cautiously optimistic,” the memo said.
Conley noted Trump had completed his second dose of the antiviral drug remdesivir, which has been shown to shorten recovery time in hospitalized coronavirus patients. Trump has also received an infusion of an experimental antibody drug produced by Regeneron, and is taking aspirin, zinc and vitamin D.
But when asked on Sunday what X-rays and CT scans showed, Conley’s response was short on details: “Some expected findings but nothing of any major clinical concern.”
Like advisers who appeared across the political talk shows on Sunday morning, Trump’s doctor also projected an image of a strong president who will defeat the virus.
“I would just share that, like every patient, we perform lung spirometry on him, and he’s maxing it out,” Conley said with a smile. “We told him, ‘See what you can do,’ and it’s over 2,500 milliliters each time. He’s doing great.”
Lung spirometry is a pulmonary test that measures lung function, including how much air can be inhaled and exhaled.
The White House communications director, Alyssa Farah, told Fox News on Sunday afternoon that Trump is “the toughest guy I’ve ever met.”
“This president is focused still on serving the people, even when he’s getting treated for the virus himself, and I think that’s extraordinary,” she said.
Farah also downplayed any friction between the president and his chief of staff, casting Meadows’ comments on Saturday as a reflection of their close relationship.
“He’s so close to this individual that when he sees him not feeling well, not his tough, strong self that we all know, that he wanted to make sure to convey that to the public,” she said.
National security adviser Robert O’Brien stressed on CBS that Trump was “firmly in control,” adding for good measure that the president was also “firmly in command of the government.”
Steve Cortes, a senior Trump campaign adviser, used a baseball analogy: Trump is on the disabled list right now, he said, but “very, very shortly” he will be throwing 95-mile-per-hour fastballs.
“There was not one even iota of the president feeling sorry for himself,” Cortes said on Fox, recalling a conversation between the president and senior campaign staff on Saturday. “He is still governing actively as president of the United States, even from the hospital. We are fully confident that his recovery will be complete.”
Cortes and Jason Miller, a senior Trump campaign adviser, tried to stabilize the uncertain narrative that has unfolded since Friday. Across several networks, they defended the precautions the White House and campaign have taken to keep people safe from coronavirus. Those protocols have come under scrutiny after several largely maskless Republican gatherings that flouted social-distancing and crowd-size guidelines were linked to the outbreak that ensnared Trump.
“We believe that masks are very useful,” Cortes said. “The president has worn them on many occasions, including visiting the hospital where he is now a patient, [and] when he was visiting as commander in chief as a guest to visit soldiers there, he wore a mask. So we believe in masks. We also believe in some element of individual choice.”
Yet Miller accused Joe Biden, Trump’s Democratic rival for president, of wearing masks when he doesn’t need to. “Too often, he’s used masks as a prop,” Miller said.
Meanwhile, the viral outbreak among senior Republican figures and their aides has continued to expand.
Former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, who helped Trump prep for the first presidential debate last week, was hospitalized on Saturday after testing positive. And early on Sunday it emerged that Trump’s body man, Nicholas Luna, had tested positive.
White House officials have said they are bracing for more cases to crop up in the coming days.
Anita Kumar contributed to this report.