It was more like a scene out of the film Contagion than an episode of The West Wing.
Dressed in hooded white hazmat suits, workers sanitised the White House at a frantic pace, in an attempt to keep the disease further at bay.
Inside the Oval Office, only two officials were allowed access to the president — Mark Meadows, chief of staff, and Dan Scavino, Donald Trump’s director of social media. Both men had to dress head-to-toe in protective garb.
The rest of the White House was largely empty after swaths of top staff, from the White House press secretary to the architect of the president’s immigration policy, tested positive for coronavirus. In order to avoid new infections, the joint chiefs of staff — the country’s senior military commanders — were reduced to meeting by video conference.
“I wouldn’t go anywhere near the White House,” Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told the daytime television programme The View on Wednesday. “It’s one of the most dangerous places in the country both in terms of the assault it makes on truth as well as health.”
The Trump presidency has hardly been devoid of drama, chaos and intrigue, but little can compare with the most recent chapter. Only 10 days ago, Mr Trump used a raucous election debate to mock his Democratic rival, Joe Biden, for wearing “the biggest mask I’ve seen”. Three days later, he was admitted to hospital after catching the deadly virus himself.
By the following Thursday, Mr Trump was back in the White House and calling into a cable news programme, claiming that he felt “perfect” and blaming his infection on the families of fallen US service members with whom he had attended an event.
In the process, Mr Trump’s illness has upended the past month of an election campaign in which the president was already well behind his rival. After needling Mr Biden for spending the early weeks of the pandemic confined to his Delaware home, suddenly it was Mr Trump who was under confinement and watching his poll numbers drop precipitously. According to an average of polls by RealClearPolitics, Mr Biden’s nationwide lead over Mr Trump has risen to 9.7 per cent and he is ahead in all of the nine key battleground states.
“People are afraid to be standing next to [Trump] for fear of getting sick and Biden is able to proceed [as normal],” says Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian. “It makes it look like to be near to Trump is toxic.”
A week after the president went into hospital, there are still many questions about his illness. The day after he was admitted, Mr Trump’s doctors suggested he had been sick with Covid-19 at least 24 hours before his diagnosis had become public — raising questions about whether Mr Trump had known he was infected when he flew to a Minnesota rally on September 30 and New Jersey fundraiser the following day.
A few hours later, the president’s physician Sean Conley revised the timeline, saying he had misspoken, one of a series of confusing messages from the doctor who has invoked the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act — a US patient privacy law — when confronted with hard questions.
At one stage, Dr Conley suggested he had offered an overly upbeat assessment of Mr Trump’s condition for fear of upsetting the president and making him worse. “Didn’t want to give any information that might steer the course of illness in another direction,” he said. “And in doing so, came off like we’re trying to hide something, which wasn’t necessarily true.”
Both the White House and Mr Trump’s medical team have repeatedly refused to confirm when he had received his last negative Covid-19 test before testing positive.
Amid the confusion, Mr Trump attempted to take matters into his own hands. On Saturday, the president appeared in a photo-op at Walter Reed hospital, signing his signature to blank sheets of paper at the hospital’s oversized desk. On Sunday, he exited the premises to cruise the perimeter in a motorcade, infuriating critics who noted that Mr Trump was putting the car’s driver and secret service agents at risk.
On Monday, Mr Trump returned to the White House by helicopter and made his way up the steps to the South Portico before dramatically ripping his mask off “like a burlesque artist”, as Mr Brinkley puts it.
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The appearance prompted social memes comparing him to former Argentine first lady Eva Perón and Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, although close-up footage revealed the president panting for air. However, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, who also tested positive this week, wrote on Twitter that she loved seeing the president return to the White House and “stand strongly on the balcony!”.
“In American life, we’re used to having at least a public facing level of stability from the commander-in-chief even among our more unstable and lawless presidents like Richard Nixon,” says Matthew Dallek, a political historian at George Washington University.
The country faces a “surreal situation”, he says, where the administration puts forward public health guidelines “based on medical evidence and every recommendation is not just ignored by Trump and Fox News but belittled as being weak, unnecessary and open to question.” It is, says Mr Dallek, “a recipe for . . . dystopia”.
“We’ve never had a president so unfamiliar with the truth and so willing to say things that are factually incorrect,” says Jeffrey Engel, the director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University. “I’m old enough to remember when the president of the United State said something wrong and that was a headline. Now it’s: which sentence would you like to choose?”
Cocktail of medication
Stuck in a 132-room-residence that Ronald Reagan once described as a “gilded cage”, Mr Trump has attempted to resume reaching the outside world through his traditional channels.
On Wednesday, the president returned for the first time to the Oval Office and released a video in which he declared his illness and hospitalisation had been a “blessing from God” and a “cure”, as well as claiming that it had been he, the patient, who had suggested to the medical professionals that they put him on an experimental antibody treatment, which he described as “Regeneron”, regularly confusing the name of the company for the treatment.
On Thursday, the president called into the television programme of Fox Business anchor Maria Bartiromo — a favoured interviewer — where he degraded Kamala Harris, the Democratic vice-presidential nominee as a “communist” and a “monster”, and railed that his own administration had failed to prosecute his 2016 opponent Hillary Clinton.
A few hours later, Mr Trump tweeted a video of himself from the White House lawn. Social media sleuths were quick to speculate it had been filmed on a green screen, given the lighting and lack of shadows, and the fact that the president, under quarantine, is meant to be confined indoors.
Mr Trump is currently under the influence of a heavy steroid as well as experimental drugs whose interaction has not been studied in a patient before.
“He is on three different medications that have never interacted before . . . that alone should have kept him in the hospital,” says Shirley Anne Warshaw of Gettysburg College, an expert on presidential decision making. “Dexamethasone leads to manic behaviour,” she says, referring to the steroid that Mr Trump was treated with during his hospital visit. “The fact that he is tweeting 50 times in an hour should tell you something.”
“You’re seeing in public the Donald Trump that I saw in private and that people who left the White House staff saw in the Oval Office every day,” says David Cay Johnston, author of The Making of Donald Trump. “Irrational. Angry. Unfocused. Unable to process information that doesn’t fit with his existing view.”
Other people who know Mr Trump suggested a bigger breaking point for the president had been his first presidential debate with Mr Biden on October 7. One person involved with both the president’s campaigns expresses exasperation at Mr Trump’s performance, where he appeared belligerent and frequently interrupted Mr Biden to his own detriment.
“Instead of being the classic, witty, funny Trump, he was basically pure anger. That’s going to turn off even some of his supporters . . . He’s basically going to have one more shot at this in front of a national audience. He can’t go into that second debate and have a similar performance as the first.” Mr Trump has said he will not join the virtual debate with Mr Biden scheduled for October 15. The final debate is scheduled for October 22.
The person adds that Mr Trump had further damaged his standing with his recent comments on Covid-19, and the fact that the president did not appear to take the disease seriously. “Where Trump has hurt himself is purely on the messaging.”
Publicly, the president, White House officials and campaign surrogates have played down Mr Trump’s polling numbers, suggesting that he can still win on the economy — even if the pandemic has caused widespread economic damage to the US.
“When it comes to pocketbook issues, the president continues to win,” says Kelly Sadler, a former Trump White House aide who now serves as spokeswoman for the pro-Trump political action committee, America First Action. “[In] the media, at this time, it’s just corona, corona, corona, while these swing states have moved beyond corona and are now looking at how they’re going to rebuild and who’s best positioned to support them.”
His supporters are hoping for a reset. Dr Conley, the president’s physician, has said it is safe for Mr Trump to resume “public engagements” this weekend, just nine days after his positive test. Mr Trump has suggested he will host a Saturday night rally.
The president returns to public life with just over three weeks until the November 3 election. More than 7.9m Americans have already voted, according to the US Elections Project — a higher number than have ever voted at this point in the election cycle, giving Mr Trump an even narrower window in which to recover, says William Galston, who served as a domestic policy aide to President Bill Clinton.
“If the president plays out the hand he is now holding, he will lose,” says Mr Galston. “He needs a reshuffle of the deck and a new deal [of cards]. And I’m not sure how he can bring that about.”