The world wants the truth about Donald Trump’s health after his positive coronavirus test. Don’t count on getting it
The stakes couldn’t be higher.
The markets are plummeting. The media is speculating. The virus continues to claim lives daily.
Outside of Walter Reed Medical Center, where the President is holed up for monitoring and treatment, you can catch strains of Japanese, Spanish, Russian, Hebrew, and yes, even a few Australian accents from round-the-clock live broadcasts.
It’s not just Americans but also America’s allies and adversaries — frankly, a globe’s worth of people — who want to know what is going on with one Donald J Trump.
It is not an understatement to say that now more than ever the world wants truth, unvarnished, unspun and entirely believable.
And it’s not an overstatement to say it feels that truth is not going to come.
Read more about Donald Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis:
The day unfolded with countless contradictions
The day in Washington started when the President’s medical team delivered a live briefing to say that Trump was doing well and in high spirits.
The optics — 10 doctors dressed in sharp white lab coats and white medical masks — couldn’t have been more thoughtfully designed to inspire confidence in the recovery.
But the aura of reassurance was undermined by the content of the team’s message, which was riddled with contradictions and vagaries.
Trump’s physician Sean Conley said early on that the President was “72 hours into the diagnosis”. Another doctor on the team said Trump received a special antibody cocktail “48 hours ago”.
The public only learned about Trump’s prognosis 36 hours ahead of that moment, which the White House indicated was only shortly after the President learned of it himself.
If you follow Dr Conley’s timeline, that means Trump knew he was COVID-positive starting midday on Wednesday, only 13 hours after he debated Joe Biden on-stage.
It would mean Trump knowingly attended not just one but two fundraisers, plus a rally, plus an Air Force One flight, plus several staff meetings, all without masks, as he was contagious with a virus that’s claimed more than 209,000 American lives.
And that’s only where the briefing started
The question and answer session ratcheted up the confusion to a 10.
“He has not received any supplemental oxygen?” a reporter asked.
“He’s not on oxygen right now, that’s right,” Dr Conley replied.
“He’s not received any at all?”
“He’s not needed any, uh, this morning, today, at all. That’s right.”
Dr Conley continued the trend — evading specifics — when pressed on everything from the date of the President’s last negative test to what his fever temperature was.
When reporters returned back to whether Trump had received oxygen, Dr Conley repeated the same careful language, and gave them a knowing smile.
Less than an hour after the press conference ended, an anonymous source familiar with the President’s health delivered White House reporters yet another contradiction:
“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”.
Less than two hours later, the New York Times and Associated Press were reporting the President had received supplemental oxygen yesterday, quoting an unnamed source.
Both outlets later clarified the source was the same as the pool report: Trump’s Chief of Staff Mark Meadows.
So with one briefing, we emerged with two conflicting timelines and two contradicting summaries of the President’s health, coming from two different White House officials.
Trump’s video looks like an attempt at damage control
Eventually, Dr Conley himself jumped in to clarify the timeline — though not the oxygen dust-up — saying that he and the other physician misspoke.
The statement did little to quell the media beast from running around, hunting for its own answers.
By the early evening, major outlets were quoting anonymous sources with all the missing details, saying Trump had suffered heart palpitations from treatment and his fever had climbed to 39 degrees Celsius.
At about 7:00pm in Washington, Trump tweeted a video of himself from the hospital, thanking the public for its support and saying he feels fine.
He doesn’t address the timeline. He doesn’t bat away the specific media claims. But that won’t matter much to his base.
He looks healthy and sticks to the narrative. He positions himself as a leader, someone who “confronts problems” rather than hide from them in quarantine.
This is the proof that Americans wanted.
A poll taken shortly after Trump’s prognosis became public found that seven in 10 Americans wanted to hear the President speak directly about his condition.
The same poll found that a majority of Americans don’t trust the administration to provide accurate health updates.
But that poll, as you might expect, split nearly evenly along partisan lines. It may be the proof that Americans wanted, but now they’ll read whatever narrative they believe.
Trump can say what he wants in a video but roughly half of country will stay sceptical.
Democrats are unlikely to believe Trump after his history of lies
This is the White House that kicked off its press briefings with Sean Spicer’s easily disproved comments about the crowd size at Trump’s inauguration.
The same White House that shared a doctored video to justify banning a reporter from press conferences.
The same White House that, just earlier this week, could not provide details to back up Trump’s debate-stage claim that election ballots had been thrown in a river, but did defend the President by saying it was a “ditch somewhere in Wisconsin”.
The lack of trust in the administration is so palpable that Trump’s fifth and current press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, began her tenure by promising the American people she’d never lie to them.
She’s been caught saying false statements in nearly every briefing since. And her behaviour is consistent with the example set by her boss.
One Washington Post tracker has counted more than 20,000 false or misleading claims from Trump since he took office.
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Statements about his health account for a few of them.
One of the President’s former physicians, Harold Bornstein, confessed that a statement he wrote about Trump in 2015 — “his physical strength and stamina are extraordinary” — was actually dictated by Trump himself.
Last November, Trump, the oldest president ever elected, made a surprise trip to Walter Reed Medical Center.
The press secretary’s official line — that Trump was “taking advantage of a free weekend” to “begin portions of his annual physical exam” — was made all the more mysterious by the President’s tweets on the matter.
In one, he said he definitely did not “suffer a series of mini strokes”, which the mainstream media had not been reporting.
Before the video today, Trump tweeted that he is “feeling well!” and complemented the medical professionals who are helping him fight the virus, which he described as a “PLAGUE”.
Since we’re talking about contradictions, it bears pointing out that this is the same President who just said 11 days ago that this “PLAGUE” affects “virtually no-one”.
But Republicans don’t trust the media
The alternate timeline now floating around begs the question of whether we’d even know about Trump’s prognosis if Bloomberg News hadn’t broken the story about Hope Hicks.
Reporting suggests the White House didn’t even inform those who came into contact with Trump that he’d tested positive.
Joe Biden, who shared a debate stage with Trump on Tuesday, said he learned about it through the media on Friday.
The media have continued to beat Trump’s team to the punch in amplifying just about every update since then.
But those updates alone won’t soothe a weary American public.
A poll taken just three days ago — before the news cycle turned into a hurricane — confirmed that America’s trust in the media continues to decline.
Roughly six in 10 adults don’t trust mainstream outlets to report facts fairly and without bias, but that distrust is most strong in the President’s own party.
Republicans’ trust in the media hit an all-time low this week, with only 32 per cent saying they trusted mainstream outlets at all.
Conspiracy theories fester when the details are vague
Democrats will remain sceptical of what the White House says. Republicans will doubt the media.
And as long as those two entities are contradicting each other, seeds of doubt will flourish.
One Trump supporter told the ABC that Trump’s test was a “decoy” designed to prove his critics wrong on the virus.
“I think he’s going to quarantine for two weeks and then come out strong two weeks before the election and open the country back up,” Tony Spell of Louisiana said.
A woman who lost a daughter to COVID-19 told us she didn’t believe the test was real either.
“I think this might just be publicity … he’s just trying to make himself look like he’s one of us and he’s also in danger,” Florida resident Anadelia Diaz said.
“I don’t know if even showing the results would make me believe it. He could forge anything.”
Right now, the whole world is waiting for the next health update for a man who leads one of the planet’s most powerful countries.
We’re a month away from an election that security officials warn could be a mess of political unrest.
And misinformation is sprouting like weeds.
Whenever that next update comes, whatever it contains, the stakes for truth couldn’t be higher.