A defiant President Donald Trump resumed public events with a divisive speech at the White House, where he potentially put lives at risk once again, just nine days after he revealed his own Covid-19 diagnosis.
After being sidelined from the campaign trail for more than a week, Trump leaned into his law-and-order message in a speech threaded with falsehoods that was clearly a campaign rally disguised as a White House event, which again featured scant social distancing.
Trump claimed that if the left gains power, they'll launch a crusade against law enforcement. Echoing his highly inaccurate campaign ads that suggest that Democratic nominee Joe Biden would defund 911 operations and have a "therapist" answer calls about crime, Trump falsely claimed that the left is focused on taking away firearms, funds and authority from police.
With just three weeks to go until an election in which he's trailing badly in the polls, and millions of voters already voting, Trump is deploying familiar scare tactics.
Biden has not made any proposals that would affect the ability to answer 911 calls. As CNN's Facts First has noted many times, Biden has repeatedly and explicitly opposed the idea of "defunding the police," and he has proposed a $300 million increase in federal funding for community policing.
As at all of his campaign events, Trump's law-and-order rhetoric applied only to his antipathy toward Democrats and the left. He made no mention of the growing power of right-wing hate and anti-government extremist groups, including those who were charged this week in an alleged plot to kidnap Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and instigate a civil war.
Whitmer had argued in a speech that Trump's refusal to condemn White supremacists and hate groups during the recent presidential debate had only emboldened those groups. After the plot was made public, Trump excoriated Whitmer in a tweet for locking down the state as part of precautionary measures to protect Michiganders from the pandemic.
Saturday's event was purportedly aimed at Black and Latino Americans, who, Trump argued, are benefiting from his agenda. Attendees included members of a group known as "BLEXIT" that was founded by conservative firebrand Candace Owens to encourage African Americans to leave the Democratic Party. His speech, however, seemed aimed at White suburbanites who are not sympathetic to the Black Lives Matter movement.
The ignorance of Trump inviting a group of Black and Latino Americans, who have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus, to an event at the White House at a time when he might still be contagious, was appalling to Dr. Jeremy Faust, an emergency physician at Brigham and Women's Hospital.
"The images we are seeing are absolutely extraordinary," Faust said on CNN's "Newsroom" as attendees on the South Lawn were closely packed together. "To literally draw (Black and Latino activists) into the White House, to a hot zone, is extraordinarily inept in terms of public policy and public health ... If you believe nuclear power is safe, you don't go and have a picnic at Chernobyl the next day to prove that point."
Still downplaying the virus while avoiding his own possible contagion
Trump skimmed over the details of his coronavirus diagnosis, saying he felt "great" and showing no signs that he's been chastened by his illness or the danger he potentially poses to others. He thanked attendees for their prayers and noted early in his speech that he had been criticized for leaving the hospital in an SUV with Secret Service agents last Sunday to thank supporters standing on the street.
"I took a little heat for it, but I'd do it again, let me tell you. I'd do it again," he said.
"We are starting very, very big with our rallies and with our everything," Trump said, alluding to his return to the campaign trail. He has three rallies planned for next week -- in Florida, Pennsylvania and Iowa.
The President continued downplaying the virus, saying the US would "defeat it" and that scientists and pharmaceutical companies are producing powerful therapeutics. The vaccine is "coming out very, very soon," he said, even though the director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said most Americans aren't likely to get a vaccine until at least the middle of next year.
And Trump continued to use the racist language the "China virus," noting flareups in Europe and Canada, but without mentioning the upward trend in new cases in the United States. "A lot of flareups, but it's going to disappear, it is disappearing and vaccines are going to help," he said.
Saturday's large gathering followed Trump's acknowledgment during a televised interview with Fox News Friday that he may have contracted the virus at one of the recent events at the White House. Trump gave an incomprehensible answer about his latest coronavirus test results Friday.
"I haven't even found out numbers or anything yet, but I've been retested and I know I'm at either the bottom of the scale or free," Trump told Fox News' medical analyst Dr. Marc Siegel on "Tucker Carlson Tonight." "They test every couple of days, I guess, but it's really at a level now that's been great -- great to see it disappear."
CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta noted that the Fox interview offered very little clarity about Trump's level of contagion and said that if the President had a simple answer about testing negative, he would have given it: "They are being purposely vague on this, but I think they're trying to track his viral load," Gupta said on "Cuomo Prime Time."
Americans are still in the dark about the date of Trump's last negative test for Covid-19. But as Trump taped the Fox interview, he said he had stopped taking medicine eight hours earlier. But he also underscored the seriousness of his illness when he acknowledged that scans of his lungs in the hospital had shown congestion and that he took the steroid dexamethasone because it keeps "the swelling down of the lungs."
White House doctors have not spoken directly to the press since Trump left Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Monday, and his doctor did not reveal his temperature in the latest statement on his vitals Thursday. Trump's physician, Navy Cmdr. Dr. Sean Conley, said in his Thursday statement that Saturday would be day 10 since Trump's diagnosis and based on unspecified tests that the team was conducting, "I fully anticipate the President's safe return to public engagements at that time."
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says on its website that patients with mild or moderate illness are infectious for up to 10 days, while those with "severe to critical illness" could remain infectious up until 20 days after the onset of symptoms. The medications that Trump received have suggested serious illness to many of the doctors interviewed by CNN.
No evidence of change to White House protocols
Still, the President's illness does not appear to have changed the safety protocols adopted by the White House or Trump's campaign, even though Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease specialist, said on Friday that it's now clear that Trump's Rose Garden ceremony for his Supreme Court nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, two weeks ago was a "superspreader event."
"We had a super spreader event in the White House," Fauci told CBS News Radio on Friday. "It was in a situation where people were crowded together, were not wearing masks. So the data speak for themselves."
Attendees at Saturday's White House were asked to bring masks and were supposed to be screened with temperature checks, a source with knowledge of the planning told CNN ahead of the event. But while Trump said he may have contracted the virus at the White House, he made no mention of masks when Siegel asked him about the lessons he has learned from contracting the coronavirus. Cases are now rising in 28 states, and Friday marked a record number of new coronavirus cases worldwide -- more than 350,000 in a single day, according to the World Health Organization.
"They had some big events at the White House and perhaps there," he said when Siegel asked where he thought he contracted the virus. "I don't really know. Nobody really knows for sure. Numerous people have contracted it, but you know people have contracted it all over the world. It's highly contagious."
Trump said his main takeaway from his illness was that Covid patients should seek medical treatment as soon as they detect possible symptoms.
"I think the secret for me was I got there very early," Trump said during the Siegel interview, acknowledging that many Americans do not have the same level of medical care or access to doctors that he does. "I think going in early is a big factor in my case."
But when it comes to preventing the spread of the disease, the White House still seems to be flouting basic public health precautions, with their Saturday protocol not looking much different from the September 26 Rose Garden event where at least 12 people who attended -- including former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who was released from the hospital Saturday after a week-long stay -- have contracted the virus, forcing the White House to empty out after aides went into quarantine.
The Commission on Presidential Debates on Friday canceled the second debate, which was scheduled for next Thursday, after the President declined to do a virtual debate despite concerns over his Covid-19 diagnosis, organizers said.
Trump has quickly announced more rallies, even though at least nine people who attended Trump's September 18 rally in Bemidji, Minnesota, have tested positive, according to Kris Ehresmann, the state's infectious disease director.
"Nine cases reported attending the rally. One case was known to be infectious," Ehresmann said. "There were two hospitalizations that were associated with that. One who is in intensive care and no deaths at this point."
That would normally be chilling news for any campaign to hear, but it has not affected Trump's desire to get back out on the trail to receive adulation from his fans at a time when he is trailing Democratic nominee Joe Biden by 11 points in CNN's poll of polls.
He hasn't hesitated in the past to put his supporters or those who protect him at risk. The President endangered Secret Service agents at the height of his own illness -- traveling with them in an SUV to thank supporters who were cheering for him outside Walter Reed.
The agents wore medical gowns, masks and eye protection as they escorted him on the unnecessary trip out of the hospital, but Trump still defended that much-criticized photo op during his Fox appearance with Siegel.
"After two days I said, 'You know I want to go out and say hello to the people,' and I went to the Secret Service -- and these are the people that are with me all the time -- and they said, 'We have no problem sir,'" Trump claimed in Friday's interview on Fox.
CNN's Kevin Liptak, however, has reported that members of the Secret Service have expressed escalating concern about the disregard for their well-being in the midst of a deadly pandemic.
One current Secret Service agent who works on the presidential and first family detail said, "That never should have happened."
"We're not disposable," the agent told CNN.
Trump offers widely varying descriptions of his illness
As medical experts try to assess the risks to Trump's supporters with the planned White House and Florida events this weekend and next week, the President's own descriptions of how serious his case of coronavirus became have varied wildly this week.
On Monday, as he returned from Walter Reed medical center, Trump implored Americans not to be afraid of the coronavirus or let it "dominate you" and said, "You're gonna beat it."
On Friday, in the midst of a blitz of interviews with friendly news outlets, he said on the Rush Limbaugh radio show that he might not have recovered if he had not received the monoclonal antibody treatment from Regeneron.
"I was in not great shape and we have a medicine that that healed me, that fixed me," Trump said on the show. "It's a great medicine. I mean I feel better now than I did two weeks ago. It's crazy. And I recovered immediately, almost immediately. I might not have recovered at all from Covid."
On Friday in the Fox interview, Trump also acknowledged that many people have died from Covid and that the pandemic had been very painful for many American families. But in a moment of cognitive dissonance, he seemed not to realize the lives he could be jeopardizing with his return to the campaign trail.
Biden clearly plans to make it a campaign issue in the coming days. During an event in Las Vegas Friday, he criticized the President's "reckless personal conduct" and said it was having "a destabilizing effect" on the government.
"He didn't take the necessary precautions to protect himself or others," Biden said. "The longer Donald Trump is President, the more reckless he gets. How can we trust him to protect this country?"
Analysis by Maeve Reston, CNN