Pacing the well-appointed presidential suite at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center between intravenous doses of remdesivir and near-hourly checks of his vitals, President Donald Trump has told more than one well-wisher he’s desperate to fly the coop.
So on Sunday he did. Just past 5 p.m. ET, a combination of boredom, agitation and yearning for adulation while convalescing from coronavirus brought the President to the rear seat of a black Chevy Suburban, waving frantically as he rode at a crawl down Rockville Pike while two US Secret Service agents, dressed in medical gowns, respirator masks and eye protection, stared stoically ahead.
It was an image concocted by the President himself and the very tight group of aides who have accompanied him to Walter Reed, including chief of staff Mark Meadows and social media adviser Dan Scavino, a person familiar with the matter said. They hoped it might reassure Americans that Trump remains both hale and in command after what he deemed exaggerated news coverage of his condition and – in particular – outsized prognostications he planned to transfer power to Vice President Mike Pence.
But his seconds-long parade only underscored the relaxed attitude toward transmission that appear to have landed Trump in the hospital to begin with. The contained space inside the presidential limousine hardly allowed for social distancing from the driver and agent. While Trump wore a mask, his status as a Covid-positive hospital patient precluded him from falling within anyone’s recommendations for a public appearance.
It was a striking image for a President who claims to now “understand” the virus after contracting it.
“I learned it by really going to school. This is the real school,” Trump said in a video posted seconds before he appeared outside Walter Reed, his voice sounding slightly raspy but still enthusiastic. “This isn’t the let’s read the book school and I get it.”
Afterward, members of the Secret Service voiced escalating concern at what many of the agency’s personnel have determined is total disregard for their well-being amid a deadly and highly contagious pandemic. Agents have tested positive for the virus while traveling for the President’s political rallies, which he insisted on maintaining even against federal health guidelines. As employees self-quarantine or isolate in place, others have been forced to work longer hours to fill the void.
It’s a situation that has prompted growing and more vocal concern.
“That should never have happened,” one current Secret Service agent who works on the presidential and first family detail said after Trump’s drive-by, adding that those agents who went along for the ride would now be required to quarantine.
“I mean, I wouldn’t want to be around them,” the agent said, expressing a view that multiple people at the Secret Service also voiced in the wake of Sunday’s appearance. “The frustration with how we’re treated when it comes to decisions on this illness goes back before this though. We’re not disposable.”
Another veteran Secret Service agent also expressed deep dismay at the Walter Reed ride, though was sympathetic for those around the President given the difficulty in pushing back on the commander-in-chief.
“You can’t say no,” the agent said.
While agents in the Secret Service have the power to say no to activities that could put a president in danger, they can’t say no in situations that could put themselves in danger.
A third agent told CNN: “It was simply reckless.” But another sought to downplay the concern.
“I’ve watched some of the news today and it’s ridiculous to say the President is trying to kill off his detail,” said another current agent on Sunday. “He’s unconventional, but we get the job done.”
In a statement, the White House insisted measures were taken to protect others in the car with Trump.
“Appropriate precautions were taken in the execution of this movement to protect the President and all those supporting it, including (personal protective equipment). The movement was cleared by the medical team as safe to do,” deputy press secretary Judd Deere said.
Medical experts and physicians said the episode appeared anything but safe.
“That Presidential SUV is not only bulletproof, but hermetically sealed against chemical attack,” Dr. James P. Phillips, who is affiliated with Walter Reed, tweeted. “The risk of COVID19 transmission inside is as high as it gets outside of medical procedures. The irresponsibility is astounding. My thoughts are with the Secret Service forced to play.”
Dr. Leana Wen, an ER physician and CNN medical analyst, tweeted that if Trump were her patient, “in unstable condition + contagious illness, & he suddenly left the hospital to go for a car ride that endangers himself & others: I’d call security to restrain him then perform a psychiatric evaluation to examine his decision-making capacity.”
A weekend in the hospital
By Sunday afternoon, the crowd of supporters gathered outside of the entrance to Walter Reed had grown to several dozen from just a handful of supporters when Trump first arrived on Friday evening.
Inside, Trump was alerted to the crowd by members of his team, and saw footage of the gathering on television sets hung in the suite of rooms where he is being treated.
Since arriving to the hospital, Trump has spent hours consuming television footage of his health situation – not an altogether different routine from how he spends his days at the White House, although now his regimen is interrupted by constant monitoring from doctors, doses of therapeutics administered through an IV and, according to his physician Dr. Sean Conley, the “ups and downs” of coronavirus that have included worrying dips in his blood oxygen level.
Still, the President has made an attempt to carry on, particularly through his extensive phone calls with family members and allies.
“He’s functioning the same way he functions in the White House or the same way he functions 24 hours a day,” his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani said on Fox News.
Throughout the weekend, Trump pushed to make some type of public appearance demonstrating his continued health, though he met some resistance from his medical team, according to a person familiar with the matter.
His drive to be seen increased on Saturday afternoon and Sunday as he grew frustrated by what he deemed overly fatalistic coverage of his condition. He was furious when a quote emerged from a person familiar with his health – later attributed to Meadows – suggesting his vital signs were “concerning” on Friday.
Instead of emerging in public on Saturday, Trump taped a four-minute video thanking his supporters and sat for a set of photos at a round wooden table and in a conference room appearing to review documents. The White House released another set of photos on Sunday, this time depicting the President sitting at his wood-paneled conference room while speaking by phone with Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley.
In both the video and the photos, Trump wasn’t wearing a mask; it wasn’t clear what steps were taken to protect the photographers who captured the images.
Unlike the White House, where Trump is surrounded by a wide network of aides, he is being staffed by only a minimal number of advisers at Walter Reed. Meadows spent the night at the hospital on Friday and Saturday. He was joined more recently by Scavino, who wrote on Twitter that after a series of negative tests he planned to work from the hospital until Trump returned to the White House.
Scavino posted a set of photographs that appeared to be taken from inside the President’s motorcade on Sunday as they progressed past the group of supporters, who waved Trump flags and shouted down opponents of the President at different points in the day. Dozens more supporters drove by in their cars, waving American flags and producing a cacophony of support for the convalescing President as they loudly honked horns in support.
Around 5:15 p.m. ET, police officers began to block off the busy intersection in front of Walter Reed where supporters were huddled on the sidewalk. Minutes later, the presidential motorcade began rolling northward on Rockville Pike, slowing to a crawl so the President could show his face.
Trump waved and pumped his fist as supporters cheered loudly – most of them not wearing masks.
Circling back on the other side of the road, as Trump drove past more supporters and tents filled with cameras and television reporters, he flashed a thumbs up.
Minutes later, he was gone. The White House alerted reporters he was back in his Walter Reed suite.
CNN’s Jeremy Diamond, Kate Bennett, Jamie Gangel, Josh Campbell and Betsy Klein contributed to this report.