U.S. President Donald Trump made his first public appearance on Saturday since returning to the White House after his hospitalization for the coronavirus, defying public health guidelines to speak to a crowd of hundreds even as the White House refused to declare that he was not contagious.
Trump took off his mask moments after he emerged on the White House balcony to address the crowd on the lawn below, his first step back onto the public stage with just more than three weeks to go until Election Day. But five days after Trump returned from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, his health remained a mystery as White House officials refused to reveal if he had tested negative or if he was still at risk of spreading the virus.
His return was a brief one.
With bandages visible on his hands, likely from an intravenous injection, Trump spoke for 18 minutes, far less than at his normal hour-plus rallies. He appeared healthy, though perhaps a little hoarse, during the speech — intended to send the message that he’s back and ready to resume his battle for re-election on Nov. 3.
Though billed as an official event, Trump offered no policy proposals and instead delivered his usual attacks on Democratic rival Joe Biden while praising law enforcement to a crowd of several hundred, most of whom wore masks while few adhered to social distancing guidelines.
“I’m feeling great,” said Trump, who said he was thankful for their good wishes and prayers as he recovered. He then declared that the pandemic, which has killed more than 210,000 Americans, was “disappearing” — even though he is still recovering from the virus.
Trump also remarked that many countries, including Canada, are seeing a COVID-19 surge.
“You see big flare-ups in Europe, big flare-ups in Canada, a very big flare-up in Canada, you saw that today,” he said.
Many provinces in Canada are seeing spikes, with the two largest — Ontario and Quebec — reporting more than 1,900 cases combined on Saturday.
In comparison, the U.S. has seen more than 57,000 so far on Saturday, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
WATCH | Trump says Canada is seeing a ‘flare-up’ of COVID-19:
In either an act of defiance or simply tempting fate, officials organized the crowd just steps from the Rose Garden, where exactly two weeks ago the president held another large gathering to formally announce his nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. That event is now being eyed as a possible COVID-19 “super-spreader,” as more than two dozen people in attendance have contracted the virus.
Trump had hoped to hold campaign rallies this weekend but settled for the White House event. But even as his health remained unclear, he planned to ramp up his travel with a rally in Florida on Monday, followed by trips to Pennsylvania and Iowa on subsequent days. It was not clear if Trump posed a risk to those he would fly with on Air Force One or encounter at the rally sites.
Before the speech, White House officials said they had no information to release on whether the president was tested for COVID-19, meaning he would make his first public appearance without the White House verifying that he’s no longer contagious.
Security was stepped up around the White House before the event, which was called a “peaceful protest for law & order.” Police and the Secret Service closed surrounding streets to vehicles and shut down Lafayette Square, the park near the White House that has long been a gathering place for public protest.
More rallies planned
As questions linger about his health — and Democratic opponent Biden steps up his own campaigning — Trump also planned to leave the Washington area for the first time since he was hospitalized for a campaign rally in Sanford, Fla. He is also increasing his radio and TV appearances with conservative interviewers, hoping to make up for lost time with just over three weeks until Election Day and millions already voting.
Biden’s campaign said he again tested negative on Saturday for COVID-19. Biden was potentially exposed to the coronavirus during his Sept. 29 debate with Trump, who announced his positive diagnosis barely 48 hours after the debate.
The president has not been seen in public — other than in White House-produced videos — since his return on Monday from the military hospital, where he received experimental treatments for the coronavirus.
On Saturday, all attendees were required to bring masks or were provided with them, and were given temperature checks and asked to fill out a brief questionnaire. Some in the crowd removed their mask to listen to Trump.
Trump’s Monday event in Sanford, Fla., what he’s described as a “BIG RALLY,” was originally scheduled to be held on Oct. 2, the day after he tested positive. Ahead of his Saturday event, Trump used Twitter to share news articles about problems with mail-in ballots in New Jersey, Ohio and Texas. Trump has repeatedly made unsubstantiated claims that universal mail-in voting is beset by widespread fraud.
Trump’s return to public activity came as Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, cautioned the White House again to avoid large-scale gatherings of people without masks.
He said of the Barrett event in an interview with The Associated Press, “I was not surprised to see a super-spreader event given the circumstances.” That means “crowded, congregate setting, not wearing masks. It is not surprising to see an outbreak,” he said.
Virus restrictions in the District of Columbia, where the White House is located, prohibit outdoor gatherings larger than 50 people, although that rule has not been strictly enforced. Masks are mandatory outdoors for most people, but the regulations don’t apply on federal land, and the Trump White House has openly flouted them for months.