President Donald Trump and his allies looked to capitalize on his discharge from the hospital on Monday, painting his return to the White House as a triumphant metaphor for his strength and vigor a month before Election Day.
The president highlighted a supporter saying his return to the campaign trail would make him an “invincible hero.” A campaign spokesman chided Joe Biden, his Democratic opponent, for lacking the experience of contracting and beating the coronavirus, while lawmakers tweeted Internet memes about Trump defeating the virus in battle.
Trump, at the same time, pointed to his own experience to implore Americans not to fear the virus, shortly before a staged return to the White House that saw him defiantly remove his mask and pose for photos as he entered the residence.
The president’s behavior may excite his strongest supporters, but the risk for him is that it will cement broader perceptions he’s been too cavalier about the spread of the virus and the threat it poses. That was underscored on Monday when three more White House aides, including Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany, were reported to have been infected. And an ABC News/Ipsos poll conducted after Trump’s diagnosis found that 72% of voters thought he had not taken the threat of contracting the disease seriously enough.
“Don’t let it dominate you,” Trump said in a video posted to Twitter after his return. “Don’t be afraid of it. You’re gonna beat it. We have the best medical equipment, we have the best medicines, all developed recently.”
In his Twitter video Monday, and others posted since he entered the hospital, Trump showed no recognition that as president, he received medical care beyond the expectations of most any other human. More than 7.4 million Americans have contracted the virus and 210,000 have died since February.
Trump basked in the theater of his release from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland, carefully staged to coincide with broadcast networks’ evening newscasts. He dramatically walked out the hospital’s bronze front doors pumping his fist and flashing a thumbs-up to reporters.
He was whisked away by the presidential helicopter, swooping over a crowd of supporters standing vigil outside the hospital. After he landed at the White House, he ascended the steps of the mansion’s South Portico to the second-story balcony. The entire journey was covered live across broadcast and cable networks.
On the balcony, Trump removed his mask, flashed a double thumbs-up and then saluted the departing Marine One helicopter. His political opponents pointed out that he appeared to be breathing heavily, and the word “gasping” began to trend on Twitter.
Yet the moment was so picture-perfect that the president, still without a mask, re-emerged from the White House residence minutes later with a camera crew in tow to re-shoot his dramatic return.
In his Twitter video, Trump defended behavior his critics have called reckless before he contracted the virus, including seldom wearing a mask and gathering large crowds of supporters at campaign rallies.
“Nobody that’s a leader would not do what I did,” Trump said. “I know there’s a risk. I know there’s a danger.”
He made his battle with Covid-19 the centerpiece of a campaign fundraising email sent early Tuesday morning.
The president’s allies poured on the praise, underscoring the extent to which Trump and his team appear unbowed — and even invigorated — by his brush with a virus that has felled so many other Americans.
Erin Perrine, a spokeswoman for Trump’s campaign, drew attention for a remark about the president’s experience, including his personal fight against Covid-19.
“He has experience as commander-in-chief, he has experience as a businessman, and he has experience now fighting the coronavirus as an individual,” Perrine said in a Fox News interview. “Those firsthand experiences, Joe Biden, he doesn’t have those.”
After criticism, she said later in a tweet that “the point I was making is that first-hand experience changes the way any individual talks about or relates to something.”
Senator Kelly Loeffler, a Georgia Republican, tweeted a video of Trump, participating in a WWE wrestling match before his presidency, body-slamming a man with an image of a virus superimposed over his face. Florida Representative Matt Gaetz repurposed an old Chuck Norris joke to praise the president.
Democrats weren’t amused, regarding the spectacle as more of the same sort of attitude that led to the White House outbreak in the first place.
Senator Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, pointed out that the president’s treatment – which included a team of dedicated doctors, access to an experimental medicine, helicopter flights and a sprawling hospital suite – was not likely to be the experience for most Americans.
“The president’s incompetence has already gotten 200,000 killed,” he said in a tweet on Monday criticizing a Trump tweet in which the president admonished Americans against fearing the virus.
“The consequences of this tweet will probably kill a couple thousand more,” Murphy said. “Just bone chilling.”
Separately, the president’s campaign said he still intends to be ready for his next debate with Biden on Oct. 15 in Miami, just two weeks after he received his first positive test for Covid-19.
“We are seeing the president who is so tough, such a fighter, returned back and get ready to go right back at it, just days after being diagnosed,” Trump’s former press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said during Fox News coverage of his return.
For Trump’s campaign, the hope is that the heroic depiction of his ordeal and recovery from the virus can improve his standing among voters – particularly those who have soured on his handling of the deadly pandemic.
Biden held a 53%-39% lead over the president among registered voters in an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released over the weekend. More than half of respondents – 52% – said Biden would do a better job dealing with the coronavirus, while just 35% said the same of Trump.
But the president is also gambling – both with his return to the White House and his political posturing – that his rapid recovery from the virus will hold. A return to the hospital would be both a concerning development for his health and further reinforcement of perceptions that he’s been impatient with the virus at every turn.
White House physician Sean Conley said he was encouraged by the president’s progress Monday, but also acknowledged the potential for regression, saying it would be a week before the medical staff could “take that final deep sigh of relief.”
“He may not entirely be out of the woods yet,” Conley said.
— With assistance by Clare Roth, and Jennifer Jacobs
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