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It was the week the men in white coats finally came for Donald Trump.
Seven doctors in face masks emerged from Walter Reed military hospital outside Washington attempting to assure a skeptical world that its most famous patient was beating the coronavirus.
They had rushed the US president on to experimental antiviral drugs and prescribed an aggressive course of steroids not available to the average patient.
But they could not cure what many critics regard as Trump’s chief pathology: chronic narcissism. He took a triumphant helicopter flight back to a White House ravaged by Covid-19, staged a tough guy “Mussolini moment” on its balcony and unleashed a blitzkrieg of tweets so erratic that they shocked even battle-hardened Trump watchers.
Doctors said his physical vital signs were improving; pollsters said his political vital signs were flatlining, with his rival, Joe Biden, leading by 16 percentage points in a CNN survey less than a month before the presidential election. Some said that, if Trump was deliberately trying to sabotage his own campaign, he could hardly do a better job than the past week.
“This @POTUS has turned his own political suicide into a surreal reality show,” tweeted David Axelrod, a former chief strategist for Barack Obama.
Trump, 74 and clinically obese, woke up last Saturday in the presidential suite at the Walter Reed medical center in Bethesda, Maryland, with his diehard flag-waving supporters massing outside. He had flown there the previous evening after testing positive for Covid-19, a virus he spent months downplaying in both words and actions even as it killed more than 210,000 Americans.
With global speculation at fever pitch, his team of doctors emerged on the hospital steps to insist their star patient was improving. But as spin doctors, they were less practised. Sean Conley, the White House physician, repeatedly declined to say when the president received his last negative test (the White House still refuses to disclose this).
He also made excruciating efforts to avoid directly answering whether Trump had received supplemental oxygen. Twenty-four hours later, standing at the same spot, he admitted that Trump had. “I didn’t want to give any information that might steer the course of illness in another direction,” Conley haltingly explained. “And in doing so, you know, it came off that we’re trying to hide something, which wasn’t necessarily true.”
The president’s other treatments consisted of an experimental antibody cocktail, the antiviral drug remdesivir and, after his blood oxygen level twice dropped suddenly, dexamethasone – a steroid typically only recommended for the very sick.
On Sunday evening Trump, a former reality TV star, sprang another surprise, riding in an armored limousine outside the hospital and waving to supporters. Experts warned that he was endangering his Secret Service detail in the airtight vehicle. An attending physician at Walter Reed called the stunt “insanity”.
To further consternation, Trump announced via Twitter on Monday that he would be returning to the White House and the medical team said they backed the decision. Just in time for the evening news, the president flew across Washington to the White House, climbed a staircase to the balcony, gave a double thumbs up – and promptly peeled his mask off.
He went on to tweet videos of his sunset return accompanied by heroic music and remarks in which, breathing more deeply than usual, he claimed: “Nobody that is a leader would not do what I did. And I know there’s a risk, there’s a danger, but that’s OK. And now I’m better. Maybe I’m immune! I don’t know. But don’t let it dominate your lives. Get out there. Be careful. We have the best medicines in the world.”
It was the opposite of what any science or public health official would advise as the US continues to report more than 44,000 new Covid-19 infections each day.
Indeed, Trump walked into a building very different from when he left it. The White House complex was described as a “ghost town” with more than a dozen staff, including the senior adviser Stephen Miller and the press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, having tested positive.
Rich Galen, a Republican strategist, said: “The notion of the White House being the world’s epicentre hot zone is just beyond belief. As far as Trump is concerned, we know this about him: you can say, how many people have died of coronavirus? Well, if none of their names are Donald J Trump, then the answer is none.”
Morale in the cramped West Wing, where for months health guidelines were scorned and those who wore masks were ridiculed, was said to be desperate, with particular frustration at the chief of staff, Mark Meadows, over his failures to rein Trump in or communicate with staff about their personal safety.
Chris Whipple, author of The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency and The Spymasters: How the CIA Directors Shape History and the Future, said: “This is the culmination of a White House chief of staff who has been awol since day one. It’s been a dysfunctional, broken White House from the beginning and now we can see that there’s no bottom.
“It’s so much worse than we ever thought and, frankly, it’s almost unbelievable to watch a White House chief of staff conspire with the president in a wholesale denial of basic science. Meadows has abdicated his responsibility from day one to tell the president hard truths.”
Whipple added: “He failed to have any protocols at the White House with the result that the staff is now dropping like flies. No competent White House chief of staff would ever have permitted that tinhorn Mussolini event on the Truman balcony or the joyride that preceded it that possibly jeopardised the lives of his Secret Service agents. So it’s been an unmitigated disaster on Meadows’s watch, I think.”
On Tuesday Trump again dashed hopes that he had learned his lesson, comparing Covid-19 to the seasonal flu, just as he did at the start of the pandemic. He also stunned members of his own Republican party by abruptly calling off negotiations with Congress for a fresh round of stimulus for the ailing economy until after the election. Within hours he partly reversed the decision, sowing even more confusion.
On Wednesday, Conley said Trump had been fever-free for more than four days and had no symptoms for the more than 24 hours. But medical experts wondered aloud if his steroid treatment could be causing mood swings.
The president returned to work in the Oval Office, breaking his own administration’s rules on isolation, and let rip with another fusillade of tweets and retweets – outlandish, self-contradictory, unhinged. In another video, he claimed his infection with coronavirus was “a blessing from God”.
The following morning, Trump gave his first interview since hospitalization for a frenzied hour on the Fox Business channel. “I’m feeling good,” he said insouciantly. “Really good. I think perfect. I think I’m better to the point where I’d love to do a rally tonight.” He added that he is a “perfect physical specimen” and “extremely young” and no longer “contagious at all”.
He also made clear that he would refuse to take part in a virtual debate with Biden on 15 October, though aides are reportedly trying to change his mind, warning that he is running out of time as polls show the former vice-president could win by a landslide on 3 November. Congressional Republicans up for re-election also fear meltdown.
Democrats, meanwhile, announced plans to set up a panel to review Trump’s health and fitness for office – raising the spectre of his potential removal before inauguration day. It was another indication that, while Trump has always been a disrupter who revels in provoking a constant stream of shock and outrage, this time feels different.
Elaine Kamarck, a senior policy adviser in the White House in the 1990s, said: “It’s more of the same but it’s getting worse. I don’t know if it’s the illness, the medication or the reality that day by day he’s getting farther behind in this race, but he’s erratic.
“Look what he did, all of a sudden out of the blue, saying we’re not going to negotiate on a stimulus package. Then, by the evening, obviously people had said to him, hey, this is crazy, so OK, well, we’ll do individual bills, which is not on the cards.”
Kamarck, a senior fellow in the governance studies program at the Brookings Institution thinktank in Washington, added: “He’s deteriorating. His irrationality is more extreme. His arrogance: he just said he is a perfect physical specimen. What 74-year-old fat man is a perfect physical specimen? Give me a break.
“He’s a mess. He’s in a mess. I don’t see how he gets out of it.”
Source: The Guardian
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