To hear it from the president’s physicians, Donald Trump is probably the healthiest hospitalized Covid-19 patient in America. He may be on a regimen of heavy-duty drugs, but he is barely symptomatic. He may be entombed in Walter Reed National Medical Center’s presidential suite, but, apparently for the first time in his presidency, asked for “documents to review.” He was doing so well, in fact, that his discharge seemed imminent. Covid-19 symptoms often get worse in the second week; Trump was on track to conquer them in only four days. In an attempt to project his strength, a hoarse and shaky Trump on Sunday announced he was planning a “little surprise” for the supporters camped outside the hospital—and subsequently held himself a mini-parade that would surely make Kim Jong Un proud.
Leaks and media reports provide a much different picture, however. We know that the president has had a fever and that he has been treated with supplemental oxygen on at least two occasions—and that his oxygen saturation level may have dipped below 90 percent, a sign of significant infection. We know that the president’s vital signs were believed to be, at one point, “very concerning.” He is being treated with a number of drugs (none of which, notably, is hydroxychloroquine, the supposed miracle drug he spent most of the spring hyping) reserved for patients in serious or critical condition. These drugs also suggest he may have pneumonia. But the briefings from the president’s physician Sean Conley have distinct North Korean vibes—they are relentlessly cheery and dishonest.
The result is that no one, it seems, knows anything for sure. The president may be extremely ill—or he may not. All we know with any certainty is what we’ve known all along: that Trump is deeply dishonest and incompetent and only cares about himself, a combination that has put people’s lives at risk, up to and including the Secret Service agents who paraded him around on Sunday afternoon.
Trump’s medical team’s credibility was destroyed less than 24 hours after the president entered Walter Reed. On Saturday morning, Conley informed the public that Trump was in good health and that his condition was rapidly improving. He no longer had a fever and had not received supplemental oxygen. It only took minutes for that narrative to fall apart. Shortly after the press conference, the White House pool was briefed by a “source familiar with the president’s health”—later revealed to be White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows—that the situation was, in fact, dire: “The president’s vitals over the past 24 hours were very concerning, and the next 48 hours will be critical in terms of his care. We’re still not on a clear path to a full recovery.”
It’s not clear why Meadows undercut Conley. At any rate, Meadows would quickly change his tune, adopting Conley’s mix of bald lies and optimism. Meanwhile, we learned that the president had received supplemental oxygen (meaning Conley lied during Saturday’s briefing), that his oxygen levels had dropped on at least two occasions, and that the president was being treated with drugs suggesting his condition was serious. Then, later that night, the administration released pictures of Trump “working,” which included a shot of him apparently writing on a blank piece of paper.
Conley defended his decision to lie about the president’s condition by saying he wanted to paint an “upbeat” picture. On Sunday, White House communications director Alyssa Farah told CNN that “when you’re treating a patient, you want to project confidence, you want to lift their spirits.” This is the culmination of the “audience of one” dogma adopted by the president’s enablers: misleading the public in an attempt to calm a terrified president. (Vanity Fair reported that a freaked-out Trump asked his aides if he was “going out like Stan Chera,” a real estate developer friend who died of Covid-19, though another confusing aspect of this whole ordeal is a reliance on anonymous sources who may be lying, too.)
Attempts to spin Trump’s health are also attempts to revive his cratering reelection campaign. Trump and his team have attempted to spin his illness as a kind of metaphor, proof that he can tame Covid-19 in America by taming it in his own body. “It’s been a very interesting journey,” Trump said in a video released on Sunday evening. “I learned a lot about Covid. I learned it by really going to school. 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.”
Campaign senior adviser Jason Miller told NBC’s Chuck Todd that Trump contracting Covid-19 was proof that he was in the trenches. “We have to take this head-on,” he said. “We can’t stay in our basement or shut down the economy indefinitely. We have to take it head-on and I think that’s the moment of what President Trump is doing right now.”
In both cases, you see the contours of a new, ridiculous campaign message: that by contracting Covid-19 Trump was uniquely equipped to conquer it. Never mind, of course, the months he spent mocking precautionary measures like wearing masks and downplaying the virus’s impact. Never mind that the only plausible metaphor of Trump catching the virus, along with seemingly the entire Republican Party, is one related to how inept and reckless his administration’s pandemic response has been. Among the revelations that emerged from the weekend’s garble of news was the possibility that Trump knew he was infected shortly after his debate appearance with Joe Biden but neglected to tell the Bidens or anyone else in what seems an awful lot like an attempt to cover it all up. He even went to a fundraiser on Thursday, shortly before he disclosed his diagnosis on Twitter.
At this point, even if Trump’s doctors were to suddenly start providing accurate information about the president’s condition, they would not be believed, having lost all credibility. Trump has, as always, privileged his deep, pathetic need to look good over every other concern, very much including running the country. His health has become yet another thing to spin, lie about, and politicize. Now no one knows what is actually happening, or how sick the president actually is. As far as we know, he could drop dead tomorrow.