White House Sends Conflicting Messages About President’s Health

The president’s medical team refused to provide critical details and left open the impression that he was known to be sick a day earlier than previously reported, forcing them to backtrack later.

WASHINGTON — The White House offered a barrage of conflicting messages and contradictory accounts about President Trump’s health on Saturday as he remained hospitalized with the coronavirus for a second night and the outbreak spread to a wider swath of his aides and allies.

Just minutes after the president’s doctors painted a rosy picture of his condition on television, Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, gave reporters outside Walter Reed National Military Medical Center a far more sober assessment off camera, calling Mr. Trump’s vital signs worrisome and warning that the next two days would be pivotal to the outcome of the illness.

“The president’s vitals over the last 24 hours were very concerning, and the next 48 hours will be critical in terms of his care,” Mr. Meadows told the reporters, asking not to be identified by name. “We’re still not on a clear path to a full recovery.”

In keeping with the ground rules he had set, Mr. Meadows’s remarks were attributed, in a pool report sent to White House journalists, to a person familiar with the president’s health. But a video posted online captured Mr. Meadows approaching the pool reporters outside Walter Reed after the doctors’ televised briefing and asking to speak off the record, making it clear who the unnamed source was.

The comments infuriated the president, according to people close to the situation, and he intervened directly to counter the perception that he was sicker than the White House had admitted. Within hours, he posted a message on Twitter saying, “I am feeling well!” and called his friend and personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani to have him convey a message to the outside world. “I’m going to beat this,” Mr. Trump told him.

By evening, the president released a four-minute video meant to reassure the nation, showing him sitting at a conference table at the hospital and wearing a suit jacket but no tie. He looked wan and sounded less energetic than usual in a rambling message that included campaign talk and boasts about his record.

He acknowledged that he “wasn’t feeling so well” but said that he felt “much better now” and that he expected to return to work shortly. “I think I’ll be back soon, and I look forward to finishing up the campaign the way we started,” he said, although he acknowledged, like Mr. Meadows, that the next few days would be “the real test.”

At one point, he offered a muddled explanation for his behavior. It was not entirely clear whether he was referring to his decision to go to the hospital or to keep campaigning in recent months despite the pandemic. “I had no choice,” he said. “I just didn’t want to stay in the White House.” He added: “I can’t be locked up in a room upstairs and totally safe and just say, hey, whatever happens, happens. I can’t do that. We have to confront problems.”

The mixed messages only exacerbated the uncertainties surrounding the president’s situation. During their televised briefing, the doctors refused to provide important details and gave timelines that conflicted with earlier White House accounts, leaving the impression that the president was sick and had begun treatment earlier than officially reported. The White House physician later released a statement insisting that he and his colleagues had misspoken.

The inconsistencies and confusion may presage an unsettling period for the president and the country. As the doctors indicated, it may be a week to 10 days before the course of Mr. Trump’s illness becomes clear, leaving America, as well as its allies and adversaries, guessing about the leadership in the world’s only superpower in the final days of a momentous election campaign.

White House officials sought to project as much of a business-as-usual image as possible, insisting that the president could govern from his hospital bed and that there was no need to transfer power to Vice President Mike Pence. Even as doctors hovered over Mr. Trump, his staff on Friday night and Saturday issued a report on his buy-American drive, announced some minor appointments and released a proclamation on Fire Prevention Week.

But in reality, Mr. Trump has had difficult and even scary moments since being diagnosed with the virus that has killed more than 208,000 in the United States so far. Two people close to the White House said in separate interviews with The New York Times that the president had had trouble breathing on Friday and that his oxygen level had dropped, prompting his doctors to give him supplemental oxygen while he was at the White House and to transfer him to Walter Reed, where he could be monitored with better equipment and treated more rapidly in case of trouble.

During the televised briefing on Saturday, Dr. Sean P. Conley, the White House physician, said the president was not currently receiving supplemental oxygen on Saturday but repeatedly declined to say definitively whether he had ever been on oxygen. “None at this moment, and yesterday with the team, while we were all here, he was not on oxygen,” he said, seeming to suggest that there had been a period on Friday at the White House when he was.

Dr. Conley likewise appeared to indicate that the president had first been diagnosed with the virus on Wednesday rather than late Thursday night before Mr. Trump disclosed the test on Twitter early Friday morning. While describing what he said was the president’s progress, he said Mr. Trump was “just 72 hours into the diagnosis now,” which would mean midday on Wednesday.

Dr. Brian Garibaldi, another physician treating the president, also said that Mr. Trump had received an experimental antibody therapy “about 48 hours ago,” which would have been midday Thursday — before the confirmation test Dr. Conley said had come back positive that evening and a full day before the White House disclosed the treatment on Friday.

Just two hours later, the White House issued a written statement by Dr. Conley trying to clarify. “This morning while summarizing the president’s health, I incorrectly used the term ’72 hours’ instead of ‘Day 3’ and ’48 hours’ instead of ‘Day 2’ with regards to his diagnosis and the administration of the polyclonal antibody therapy,” Dr. Conley said. Mr. Trump, he said, was “first diagnosed” with the virus on Thursday evening and given the antibody cocktail on Friday.

The confusion came from a briefing where Dr. Conley and his team offered a relentlessly positive assessment of Mr. Trump’s condition. The doctors said Mr. Trump had been free of fever for 24 hours and had blood pressure and heart rates that were normal for him. “This morning the president is doing very well,” Dr. Conley said. “At this time, the team and I are extremely happy with the progress the president has made.”

Dr. Sean N. Dooley, another physician on the team, said Mr. Trump was feeling optimistic. “He’s in exceptionally good spirits,” Dr. Dooley said. He added that the president told his doctors, “I feel like I could walk out of here today.”

Mr. Trump, bored at the hospital and talking to a number of relatives and advisers by phone, was said by three administration officials and people close to him to indeed be in better shape, which added to the frustration among advisers that Dr. Conley and Mr. Meadows had created such confusion.

Dr. Conley was put out to speak primarily because White House officials had recognized that there were few in the president’s circle who were seen as credible. But Mr. Meadows was unhappy with Dr. Conley’s appearance, one person close to the president said, and he tried to correct it himself. That in turn only heightened anxiety and angered Mr. Trump.

While Mr. Meadows gave a more candid description of the president’s condition, the chief of staff has been heavily criticized by people working inside the administration for being too controlling of information that affects a large group of people working in the White House — and too eager to put himself at the center of the public discussion.

Mr. Meadows later tried to walk back his earlier comments. “The president is doing very well,” he told Reuters. “He is up and about and asking for documents to review.” He called into Fox News on Saturday night, knowing the president was watching, and praised his “unbelievable courage” and “unbelievable improvement.” But he also confirmed that Mr. Trump’s condition on Friday was worse than originally described. “Yesterday morning we were real concerned with that,” Mr. Meadows said. “He had a fever and his blood oxygen level had dropped rapidly.”

At Walter Reed, doctors put Mr. Trump on remdesivir, an antiviral drug that has hastened the recovery of some coronavirus patients, and gave him a second dose on Saturday. In another statement, issued after 9 p.m., Dr. Conley said Mr. Trump “remains fever-free and off supplemental oxygen” with a saturation level of 96 percent to 98 percent. “While not yet out of the woods, the team remains cautiously optimistic,” he said.

The outbreak infected a third Republican senator on Saturday as Ron Johnson of Wisconsin reported testing positive as did former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, who helped prepare Mr. Trump for his campaign debate on Tuesday. Nicholas F. Luna, the director of Oval Office operations, also tested positive, an administration official said Saturday night. In the course of barely 48 hours, the president, his wife, his campaign manager, his party chairwoman, his senior adviser, his assistant, his former counselor, his debate coach and three Republican senators all tested positive for the virus, along with at least three White House reporters.

The White House medical unit was investigating Mr. Trump’s announcement of his nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court last weekend as a likely source of the virus’s spread. More than a half-dozen people who attended the event on Sept. 26 or were with the president on Air Force One flying to a campaign rally in Pennsylvania later in the evening have now tested positive.

Two of the three senators who have now tested positive for the virus, Mike Lee of Utah and Thom Tillis of North Carolina, were at the Barrett announcement and serve on the Senate Judiciary Committee that will consider her nomination, further complicating a confirmation drive that was already testing speed limits and a razor-thin majority to get done before the election, as Mr. Trump has insisted.

Mr. Johnson, the third senator now infected, was not at the event because he was quarantining from a previous exposure to someone with the virus. He emerged from 14 days of quarantine after testing negative and returned to Washington on Tuesday, his office said, but attended lunch with other Senate Republicans that put him in the same room with Mr. Lee and Mr. Tillis. He was tested again on Friday and it came back positive.

If all three Republicans were unable to vote, Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican majority leader from Kentucky, would not have enough support to force through confirmation of Judge Barrett because two moderate Republican senators, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, have already indicated that they oppose installing a new justice before the election.

Even as Mr. McConnell said on Saturday that the full chamber would not meet this coming week as planned, Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, issued a statement saying the panel would proceed with plans to meet on Oct. 12 to begin considering Judge Barrett’s nomination.

But Republicans could need contingency plans depending on whether the three senators who tested positive get sick. One option being discussed was holding the Judiciary Committee vote in the Senate chamber with the infected senators perched in the galleries overlooking the floor, far from their colleagues.

Democrats complained about the Republican persistence. “To proceed at this juncture with a hearing to consider Judge Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court threatens the health and safety of all those who are called upon to do the work of this body,” Senator Dianne Feinstein of California and the rest of the committee’s Democrats said in a letter to Mr. Graham.

The president’s illness forced him off the campaign trail with only a month until the election on Nov. 3. Mr. Trump’s events have been canceled, leaving it to Mr. Pence, who has tested negative for the virus, to pick up the burden of the contest against former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Democratic nominee.

The Biden campaign, after not answering repeated requests for more details on its testing protocol and results following the president’s positive result, said on Saturday night that it would release the results of future tests in an attempt to draw a contrast with the lack of clarity from the White House.

Peter Baker is the chief White House correspondent and has covered the last four presidents for The Times and The Washington Post. He also is the author of six books, most recently “The Man Who Ran Washington: The Life and Times of James A. Baker III.” @peterbakernyt • Facebook

Maggie Haberman is a White House correspondent. She joined The Times in 2015 as a campaign correspondent and was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for reporting on President Trump’s advisers and their connections to Russia. @maggieNYT

Source: nytimes .com (The New York Times)

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