Dialing in for his first interview since being hospitalized, President Donald Trump went on an hour-long ramble that devolved into vicious and sexist attacks on the Democrats running against him, desperate claims against old enemies and dangerous boasts about his own apparent recovery from coronavirus.
Trump’s appearance did little to reverse impressions of a candidate in denial about the country’s health situation or lost in a web of old grievance and comes just weeks before a presidential election that polls currently show him badly trailing. He called into Fox Business from the White House residence, where he continues taking a steroid as part of his Covid treatment.
Trump, whose voice sounded husky over the phone, had no events on his schedule Thursday; it was the third day in a row since he returned from hospital that his public agenda appeared empty. In White House videos posted Wednesday and Thursday, he appeared upbeat but at moments seemed breathless and wore heavy makeup.
The President said he was eager to return to the campaign trail and insisted he was no longer shedding the virus, even though he was only diagnosed a week ago. But he said he would refuse to participate in a virtual debate with Joe Biden, saying it would be easier for the moderator to cut him off.
He suggested he could have contracted the virus from a reception he held for Gold Star families at the White House last Sunday instead of the mask-less ceremony announcing his Supreme Court nominee, which has produced several cases.
“They want to hug me and they want to kiss me,” he said. “And they do. And frankly, I’m not telling them to back up.”
He aired disappointment with three of his senior-most administration officials – including two of his most loyal Cabinet members – though seemed unwilling to do anything about it, saying he didn’t want to talk about it further.
And he lobbed accusations against Sen. Kamala Harris, the Democratic vice presidential nominee, that edged into the realm of Joseph McCarthy.
“She’s a communist. She’s not a socialist, she’s well beyond a socialist,” he said, going on to make false, fear-mongering claims that Harris wants to “open up the borders to allow killers and murderers and rapists to pour into our country.”
He twice called Harris, the first woman of color on a major party ticket, a “monster.”
The appearance shoved aside any coverage of Wednesday evening’s vice presidential debate. And it seemed to solidify the impression of a candidate in deep distress about the state of his campaign.
Over the course of his illness, Trump has remained focused on the race, people who spoke to him said. He has expressed concern at how his hospitalization will play politically, and initially resisted going to Walter Reed.
Trailing his rival Biden – in some national polls by double digits – the President seemed to be grasping at last-ditch attack lines, including implying the 77-year-old Biden would not last a full term in office.
“Biden won’t be president for two months,” he baselessly claimed. “He’s not mentally capable.”
By comparison, Trump portrayed himself a picture of health, even though he is the candidate who last week struggled to breathe and required supplemental oxygen.
“I’m back because I am a perfect physical specimen and I’m extremely young. And so I’m lucky in that way,” Trump said. Trump, at 74, is clinically obese and has known heart issues.
“I could’ve been out of the hospital in one day,” he added, attributing his recovery to the experimental monoclonal antibody therapy produced by Regeneron.
Left unanswered were the many open questions about Trump’s condition, which weren’t asked by his pliant interviewer. He did not address what his lung scans showed, didn’t say when he last tested negative and wasn’t asked how high his temperature reached at the end of last week, when he was airlifted to Walter Reed.
“I’m essentially very clean,” Trump said.
Trump has been eager to put his hospitalization behind him. He returned to the Oval Office on Wednesday, briefed by aides decked out in full protective gear on a looming hurricane and stimulus talks. Already, travel has been discussed for next week, even though based on the time of Trump’s infection he would likely still be contagious.
Trump shrugged those concerns off in his interview.
“I don’t think I’m contagious at all,” he claimed.
He listed three senior members of his administration who he said have displeased him, for different reasons. Some, such as FBI Director Christopher Wray, have irritated Trump for months. But his criticism of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was new.
“I’m not happy about him, for that,” Trump said of his top diplomat for not surfacing emails he says were deleted by his 2016 rival Hillary Clinton.
He also went after Attorney General William Barr, who he said would go down in history as “a sad situation” if he doesn’t prosecute Trump’s political rivals.
“Bill has got to move,” he said, suggesting time was running short for his administration officials to use their offices to go after his opponents.
More familiar were his attacks on Wray, who he accused of downplaying the risks of mail-in voting. But asked whether he planned to dismiss another FBI director, Trump demurred.
“I don’t want to say that yet,” he said. “He’s been disappointing.”