Wednesday had all the trappings of a typical day at the Trump White House.
There was a morning flurry of all-caps tweets from President Donald Trump. From his residence, Trump cycled through his favorite subjects — he wanted his political opponents jailed, Democrats were ruining the balloting system, etc. Then, in the early afternoon, Trump descended to the Oval Office to get briefings on a brewing hurricane and congressional negotiations. Meanwhile, reporters lingered, trying to catch aides passing by. Every development fit the rhythms of an unremarkable day.
Yet each of those developments was infused with the surreality of the moment.
Trump’s tweet storm was not just seen as “Trump being Trump.” It caused some, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, to wonder whether the steroids Trump took as part of his coronavirus treatment were fueling his all-caps tweetfest.
Trump’s descent to the Oval Office was not just a quotidian act, it was breaking news — the first time a coronavirus-infected Trump had left his sealed off living quarters since returning from the hospital Monday night. A table outside the office was piled with masks and other PPE for staff. White House chief of staff Mark Meadows entered wearing a mask and goggles.
And the West Wing Trump arrived in was not its usual bustling hive of activity. Instead, it was hushed and desolate, with staffers forced into quarantine from the coronavirus outbreak that has raced through the administration. The few aides still in the building all had masks at the ready, even if they weren’t always wearing them inside or outside. Others appeared tense: White House trade adviser Peter Navarro snapped at photographers who captured him wearing a mask and work out clothes.
Meanwhile, down in the press quarters, some journalists abandoned their normal workspace, choosing to instead space out on the driveway outside.
There was even the occasional disregard for pandemic protocols. Young staffers sat close together at picnic tables during lunch. Trump’s favored pandemic adviser, Dr. Scott Atlas, was seen walking around without a mask.
It had all the confusing rhythms of a remarkable day in a bizarre year.
“This is a contagious deadly disease. I feel like I’m living in some sort of surreal movie here,” Dr. Sanjay Gupta, a neurosurgeon, said on CNN, discussing the White House’s handling of the outbreak.
As the White House juggled questions about the president’s health (Trump told his doctor he is “Feeling great!”), when he last tested negative (no answer), or the origin of the outbreak (still unclear), the president was doing everything he could to project power.
After remaining quiet on Twitter for days, Trump came back with a vengeance Tuesday night, issuing whiplash and seemingly contradictory orders.
He suddenly injected himself into legislative negotiations over coronavirus relief money, after largely remaining out of the situation for weeks. And his directives seemed to only sow confusion on Capitol Hill. After dramatically and unexpectedly calling off talks Tuesday night, he then called for piecemeal relief bills on Wednesday and aides said he was talking to his negotiating team throughout the day.
He also went back to attacking his own scientists working on the coronavirus, accusing the Food and Drug Administration of a “political hit job,” alleging the agency was withholding approval of a coronavirus vaccine until after the election.
And although Trump is able to take briefings from the residence of the White House, he chose to make the short — yet dramatic — journey to the Oval Office. He walked up the colonnade outside to avoid the staffers inside. Once in the office, he was briefed on Hurricane Delta, which is bearing down on the Gulf Coast, and the stimulus talks.
With his Oval Office field trip, Trump brought the spotlight back to his battle with coronavirus, just hours ahead of Vice President Mike Pence’s big night on the debate stage. Pence was in Utah making final preparations for his debate with Kamala Harris, running mate for Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.
Throughout the day, Trump kept up his scattershot promises, claiming at one point that the country “should” have all remaining U.S. troops in Afghanistan “home by Christmas!” even though that timeline is unrealistic and military officials have signaled thousands of troops will still remain into November.
Trump also spent his afternoon, according to aides, working on a video to release to the nation that night — another attempt to exude strength.
The result was a nearly five-minute monologue in which the president, bronzed with makeup, talked about his experience fighting coronavirus. He claimed, falsely, that an infusion he received of an experimental antibody cocktail was a “cure” for the disease. He promised that “hundreds of thousands of doses are just about ready.” And he vowed the average American would soon “get ’em free,” brushing aside the logistical, regulatory and insurance-related barriers that make such a scenario unlikely.
“I want everybody to be given the same treatment as your president,” Trump said, avoiding the fact that his entire treatment has, by some estimates, cost more than $100,000 — a total that even with insurance coverage could still leave average Americans saddled with heft bills.
Trump did not mention the 211,000-plus Americans who have died of the virus. Instead, he called his diagnosis a “blessing from God” for showing him the benefits of an experimental drug.
“I feel great. I feel, like, perfect,” Trump said. “I think it was a blessing from God that I caught it, I think it was a blessing in disguise.”
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