President Donald Trump staged a reckless departure from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Monday, telling his followers the virus that dangerously deprived him of oxygen and hospitalized him for 72 hours was nothing to fear before posing for a mask-less photo-op on the White House balcony.
It was a remarkable attempt to convert his still-ongoing disease into a show of strength, even as it underscored his longstanding practice of denying the pandemic's severity and downplaying its risks despite the more than 200,000 Americans dead.
"Don't be afraid of Covid. Don't let it dominate your life," Trump wrote several hours before walking carefully out of the hospital's gold front doors, even as his doctors warned he wasn't yet "out of the woods."
Wearing a white cloth mask and a navy blue suit, Trump gave several thumbs up and a fist bump as he walked down the hospital's front steps toward his waiting helicopter. He would not answer when asked how many of his staffers had tested positive.
After a flight over Washington, Trump landed on the South Lawn and proceeded in an unusual route up a set of stairs to the first-floor balcony, where aides had positioned a row of American flags.
Peeling off his mask, Trump posed in salute as his helicopter departed before walking inside. The building he's returning to has become a center for viral contagion -- in part because of disregard for mitigation measures.
Then Trump posted a propaganda video after apparently re-doing his White House entrance for effect. He also nonsensically seemed to claim he faced the coronavirus because he "had to" as a "leader" -- a deeply misleading message to deliver.
"We're going back. We're going back to work. We're gonna be out front. As your leader I had to do that. I knew there's danger to it but I had to do it," Trump says in the video. "I stood out front. I led. Nobody that's a leader would not do what I did. I know there's a risk there's a danger. That's OK. And now I'm better, and maybe I'm immune? I don't know. But don't let it dominate your lives. Get out there, be careful."
The message was jarring not only because it was irresponsible but that it came from a current coronavirus patient who has experienced serious symptoms of the disease and whose recovery has included experimental treatments unavailable to most Americans.
As more of his aides test positive for the disease and questions emerge about what steps have been taken to curtail the spread, Trump's physician Dr. Sean Conley offered few details on how staff members would be kept safe upon Trump's return to the White House, which is equipped with its own medical suite.
He also continued to obfuscate on critical pieces of information, such as when Trump last tested negative for coronavirus or what was revealed in a lung scan. He said privacy rules prevented him from disclosing those details, even though he and other doctors treating the President offered very specific figures in other areas that seemed to show Trump's condition improving.
He did say Trump had been administered another round of the antiviral drug remdesivir and has remained on dexamethasone, a steroid. He will receive another round of remdesivir at the White House on Tuesday.
Previously, Trump's doctors have said his condition required intravenous medication and, on at least two occasions, supplemental oxygen.
On Monday, Conley insisted Trump was well enough to return home.
"He's met or exceeded all hospital discharge criteria," he told reporters outside Walter Reed. "We plan to get him home."
Even as Trump told aides he feels better and was agitating to get out of the hospital, some aides encouraged him to stay, warning him of the bad optics if his condition were to worsen and require a second hospitalization.
Trump insisted on returning, however, and on Monday made the announcement on Twitter.
"I will be leaving the great Walter Reed Medical Center today at 6:30 P.M. Feeling really good!" Trump tweeted on Monday afternoon.
"We have developed, under the Trump Administration, some really great drugs & knowledge," he went on. "I feel better than I did 20 years ago!"
His message downplaying the severity of the virus will do little to dispel the notion his own nonchalance toward mitigation measures is what landed Trump in the hospital in the first place.
And his mention of therapeutics meant to combat the virus will have little application for regular Americans facing a positive diagnosis; medical experts have suggested the combination of experimental treatments and therapies Trump received would be mostly out of reach for anyone except the President.
Speaking Monday, Conley said it had been 72 hours since Trump's last fever and that his oxygen levels were normal.
"He may not be entirely out of the woods yet," Conley acknowledged, but said his current condition supported a "safe return home."
Bored and eager to appear healthy, Trump had agitated for a swift release and on Sunday made a foray outside the hospital walls for a slow-motion drive-by to greet supporters gathered at a roadside nearby.
People who have spoken to the President over the past day say he sounds in good spirits even as he pushed to be released. Trump was demanding to go back to the White House on Sunday, two sources familiar with the situation told CNN, but was convinced to remain by his medical team.
"He is done with the hospital," one of the sources said of Trump's mood on Sunday. Trump is concerned the sight of him being hospitalized "makes him look weak," the other source said.
Not all of his allies are in agreement; the President is being warned if he rushes to leave the hospital and then has a setback requiring readmittance it would be damaging not only to his health but politically as well.
McEnany tests positive
Even as the President's health appears to be improving, the situation within his administration was hardly stabilizing. Press secretary Kayleigh McEnany wrote she tested positive on Monday morning after a string of negative tests through the weekend.
Combined with the positive tests of two of McEnany's deputies, that brings brings the number of Trump insiders to have contracted coronavirus to more than a dozen, including his wife, senior adviser, personal assistant, campaign manager, two debate prep advisers, party chairwoman and three Republican senators.
McEnany spoke to reporters briefly at the White House on Sunday without wearing a mask. In her statement, she said "no reporters, producers or members of the press are listed as close contacts by the White House Medical Unit."
But her diagnosis heightened the impression of the virus spreading quickly through Trump's staff, who only began wearing masks regularly as he was being transported to hospital on Friday. Some aides have expressed frustration at a lack of communication about the situation.
Mindful of Trump's aversion to appearing weak, the White House has tried to control the optics of his illness with misleading briefings, posed images and the reckless photo-op outside the hospital.
Monday morning, the President's advisers were signaling he would likely be back to the White House by the evening, a prospect first raised by one of his physicians during Sunday's briefing. The messages were funneled through Fox News, which the President has been watching almost without interruption inside the presidential suite at Walter Reed, often growing upset by what he views as exaggerated descriptions of his health.
The decision to publicly telegraph a date of expected discharge caused some anxiety among the President's aides, who feared the optics if Trump is not back to the White House by Monday.
It has also led to concern the President is applying pressure on his medical team to leave the hospital earlier than is prudent.
On Saturday, Conley said the most critical stretch of Trump's disease will come seven to 10 days after diagnosis.
Based on current calculations of a positive test on Thursday evening, the President on Monday was only at four or five days. But without knowing when the President's last negative test took place -- information the White House and Conley have refused to provide -- it's not clear how far along the President is in the disease.
As he and his medical team were weighing the time of his potential discharge, Trump was issuing a furious burst of all-caps tweets related to the presidential election.
"NEXT YEAR WILL BE THE BEST EVER. VOTE, VOTE, VOTE!!!!!" he wrote, following by nearly 20 messages each listing an issue he hopes voters will deem important.
A day earlier, in the midst of an aggressive course of treatment, Trump left Walter Reed with his security detail Sunday afternoon so he could take a brief ride in an SUV past supporters cheering him on.
The surprise outing, where Trump waved to his supporters through the window while wearing a mask in the back of his SUV, was an attempted show of strength that displayed the President's questionable judgment, his willingness to endanger his staff and the fact that he still does not seem to comprehend the seriousness of a highly contagious and deadly disease.
Trump's doctors on Sunday provided concerning details about his condition to reporters, including two alarming drops in his oxygen levels. But their professed hope that he could be discharged on Monday -- followed by the afternoon photo-op -- underscored that the primary concern for the President, who was furious at his chief of staff for telling reporters about his troubling vital signs, is projecting a commanding image to the public.
An attending physician at Walter Reed harshly criticized Trump's Sunday drive-by as a risk to the lives of Secret Service agents who accompanied him in his SUV.
"Every single person in the vehicle during that completely unnecessary Presidential 'drive-by' just now has to be quarantined for 14 days. They might get sick. They may die. For political theater. Commanded by Trump to put their lives at risk for theater. This is insanity," Dr. James Phillips tweeted.
Despite the risk posed to others in the hospital, the driver and security, White House spokesman Judd Deere said that "the movement was cleared by the medical team as safe to do" and that "appropriate precautions" were taken, "including PPE."
But with the circle of people in government or close to the President who have tested positive rapidly widening over the weekend -- including at least eight people who attended the Supreme Court nominee announcement in the Rose Garden last month -- there were renewed questions about the White House's commitment to the social distancing and mask-wearing guidance from its own coronavirus task force.
The White House Management Office sent its first staff-wide email Sunday night since Trump tested positive for coronavirus early Friday morning. Until then, staffers had gotten no word about whether to come into work or to remain home given that several of their colleagues tested positive. Stunningly, the email, which was viewed by CNN, states they should not contact the White House testing office if they have symptoms.