When President Trump returned home from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, he stood triumphantly on the White House balcony and stripped off his protective face mask. A relatively recent part of his pandemic wardrobe, it was meant to signal his return to full health.
It wasn’t the first time unmasking has become an issue in the Trump White House, but the president was sending a message. “I’m back because I’m a perfect physical specimen, and I’m extremely young,” Trump, 74, told Fox News days later.
The full story is more complicated. Trump is back and, by all accounts, feels better than when he rode Marine One to a weekend stay at the area military hospital following his COVID-19 diagnosis, making him the world’s most famous patient of the disease that threatens his reelection prospects. But sightings of White House chief of staff Mark Meadows decked out in personal protective equipment suggest things aren’t completely back to normal.
Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he hadn’t been able to see the president in a couple of months. “I haven’t actually been to the White House since August the 6th,” the Kentucky Republican told reporters. “Because my impression was that their approach to how to handle this is different from mine and what I suggested that we do in the Senate, which is to wear a mask and practice social distancing.”
The illness has made major campaign events, from the in-person rallies that are Trump’s signature to the second presidential debate, more challenging. And it has shone a spotlight on White House events preceding the president’s infection, including the announcement of Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court and a gathering with Gold Star families.
“Everything can be labeled a potential superspreader,” said a source close to the Trump campaign. “By our opponents or anybody else.” Though the White House has clarified that the Gold Star families are not where the internal outbreak originated.
“No, absolutely not, and I appreciate you asking so we can clarify,” White House communications director Alyssa Farah told reporters in a gaggle. “[Trump’s] point was merely that in the time frame that he was potentially exposed, there were a number of different venues he’d been at and individuals he had interacted with that it could have come from — and by no means are blaming anyone who was present. And we did take a lot of precautions for that event. So, based on contact tracing, the data we have, we don’t think it arose from that event.”
But the fact that Trump fell ill, however briefly, and a number of people in his inner circle tested positive (adviser Hope Hicks, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien, and above all, first lady Melania Trump) has served as a metaphor for Democratic attacks on his coronavirus response. The question for Trump is how to turn it all around less than a month from Election Day.
“He is a survivor,” said Republican strategist Bradley Blakeman. “He is proof that this scourge is survivable and that we need to protect the vulnerable and the rest need to get back to work.”
That is very much the argument Trump is making. “Don’t be afraid of Covid,” he tweeted shortly before leaving Walter Reed. “Don’t let it dominate your life.” In a video on the White House lawn, Trump added, “I think this was a blessing from God that I caught it.” He has been predicting the end stages of the pandemic and promoting economic reopening for months.
“The cure is worse than the disease when we think we are more powerful than nature,” said Blakeman, who worked in George W. Bush’s White House. “We can’t prevent hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, or pandemics. All we can do is to use common sense and science to mitigate effects. Democrats think they can change nature, climate, and people.”
Trump is also taking the risk of riding into the election without another coronavirus spending package to juice economic statistics one last time. While talks had stalled long ago, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi reluctant to push a narrower bill that could easily win White House support, Trump abruptly announced on Twitter that he was breaking off negotiations with his Capitol Hill nemesis, seemingly taking ownership of it, though he has since floated limited measures.
As with most things, Trump is dealing with the coronavirus his way. “The president needs to present himself as the model,” Blakeman said. “We must take reasonable risks with precautions in order to go on with our lives.”