Less than 24 hours after requiring supplemental oxygen and being hospitalized for COVID-19, President Donald Trump was already talking about the virus in the past tense.
“I learned a lot about COVID. I learned it by really going to school,” Trump said in a video filmed from his hospital suite on Saturday. “And I get it, and I understand it, and it’s a very interesting thing.”
It had been a rare and ominous sight to watch the President of the United States get airlifted to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center to be treated for a disease that has killed more than 210,000 Americans and sickened millions more. Laid low by the very virus that he has consistently downplayed, and with more than a dozen White House and Republican officials around him also infected, Trump struck a rare note of uncertainty, tweeting “Going well, I think!” Messages of shock and sympathy came in from around the world.
But if public health officials, and even some of Trump’s own aides, had hoped the experience would chasten him to change his message after months of questioning the severity of the disease, it quickly became clear that they were mistaken. “Don’t be afraid of Covid,” the President, who has received the very best medical care in the U.S., repeatedly told Americans a mere 72 hours later.
By the time he was staging his triumphant return from the hospital on Monday evening — still infected and heavily medicated — the sentiment that the president’s experience proved the virus had been exaggerated had exploded in the conservative media ecosystem. Slickly produced White House videos depicted Trump as a returning war hero, in an aggressive campaign to paper over any seeming vulnerabilities in a president who has always valued the appearance of strength above all else. The implication was that Trump was over the disease, which he isn’t, and that the nation needed to be as well, which it is not.
Trump’s message — not only urging Americans not to be afraid of the deadly illness, but promising they are “gonna beat it” if they get infected — was met with disbelief by many doctors and health experts who have spent the past nine months watching patients fight for their lives and die alone. “What the president is saying is untrue and irresponsible,” said Carlos del Rio, an infectious disease expert at Emory University in Atlanta, tells TIME. “He’s giving the impression: ’I’m strong, I made it, you’re the weak ones that didn’t make it.’ I think it shows a lack of compassion.”
On Tuesday morning, Trump continued to minimize the severity of the virus. “Flu season is coming up! Many people every year, sometimes over 100,000, and despite the Vaccine, die from the Flu. Are we going to close down our Country? No, we have learned to live with it, just like we are learning to live with Covid, in most populations far less lethal!!!” he posted on social media channels.
His claims are, of course, untrue. Over the past decade, the number of Americans killed by the flu has never exceeded 61,000 in a given year. Facebook took the rare step of deleting the post, and Twitter flagged it with a warning about “spreading misleading and potentially harmful information.”
It’s just the latest in Trump’s ongoing series of false claims about this pandemic. In August, Facebook removed a video clip in which he falsely claimed that children are “almost immune” to the virus, calling it “a violation of our policies around harmful COVID misinformation.” A study released last week by Cornell University researchers, which analyzed 38 million articles about the pandemic in English-language media, found that Trump was the largest driver of the so-called “infodemic,” or falsehoods about COVID-19. Mentions of the president or his words made up nearly 38% of the overall “misinformation conversation,” they found.
In other words, the President of the United States is the top super-spreader of falsehoods about the deadliest disease to hit humankind in more than a century.
Once Trump gave the signal that he had no intention of changing his message on the virus despite being infected himself, many of his allies in Congress and conservative media quickly amplified his claims, portraying his release from the hospital as a sign of strength. Many of these lawmakers and supporters who just days earlier had somberly asked for thoughts and prayers for the president immediately took their cue and broadly amplified his dismissal of the virus’ severity from all quarters. The coronavirus “almost certainly isn’t going to kill you,” Fox News analyst Brit Hume told viewers. Fox News host Tucker Carlson gleefully recounted Trump walking into the White House: “Seventy-four years old and the virus didn’t really slow him down…you might conclude the coronavirus isn’t quite as scary as they’re telling you it is.”
Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler of Georgia tweeted an edited video showing Trump in a wrestling match with an opponent labeled COVID-19 with the message “COVID stood NO chance against @realDonaldTrump.” Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz tweeted “President Trump won’t have to recover from COVID. COVID will have to recover from President Trump.” Both posts, which have been viewed millions of times, were broadly criticized for implying that the 210,000 Americans who died from the virus just weren’t tough enough to fight it.
Echoing a line that had been repeated in television interviews by his surrogates over the weekend, Trump projected himself as a hero who sacrificed himself to take on the burden of contracting COVID, so Americans can see how easy it is to overcome. “As your leader, I had to do that,” he says in the video posted Tuesday night. “I knew there was danger to it, but I had to do it. I stood out front. I led.”
It also quickly turned into a fully formed campaign talking point: Trump had faced down the virus and won. “Listen, he has experience as commander-in-chief, he has experience as a businessman, he has experience, now, fighting the coronavirus as an individual,” Trump campaign spokesperson Erin Perrine told Fox News on Monday. “Those firsthand experiences: Joe Biden, he doesn’t have those.”
Ever the reality television producer, the President meticulously orchestrated the messaging of his discharge from the hospital — and his victory over COVID. Staff set up lighting around Walter Reed’s golden doorway before he exited the hospital in front of the assembled cameras. His trip home was documented by staff on high-definition film and turned into two videos published on social media.
The first 37-second video shows Marine One in slow-motion arriving at the White House, hovering above the South Lawn, kicking up debris. After the helicopter touches down at dusk, the dramatic background music swells when the President emerges wearing a white cloth mask and a navy-blue suit, and crescendos when he peels the mask off, takes a breath through gritted teeth, and salutes the chopper from the first-floor balcony.
A second video, which is 86 seconds long, features Trump speaking directly to the camera about how he managed to overcome his illness. “Don’t be afraid of it,” Trump says in the video. “And now I’m better, and maybe I’m immune? I don’t know. But don’t let it dominate your lives. Get out there, be careful.”
Television cameras captured Trump coming back outside with the camera crew to reshoot his entrance into the White House, still not wearing a mask. As of Tuesday afternoon, the two videos had been viewed more than 7 million times, and shared by more than 110,000 people.
Lost in all of this is that Trump benefited from exquisite care in a top hospital and from some of the best physicians and staff on the planet, a combination that isn’t available to virtually any other human on the planet. Details of his treatment have not been publicly disclosed, though doctors have said it involves an aggressive experimental medicinal cocktail that had to be specially authorized.
“What we’re seeing right now is a contest over framing. The president is working aggressively to create the impression that he is fine, he is healthy, and for practical purposes COVID has had no effect on him – in fact he’s feeling “20 years younger,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, who has tracked the spread of coronavirus misinformation on conservative and social platforms “But what the science says is those over 65 are at particular risk. When you minimize your perception of severity you’re less likely to engage in protective behaviors, which means he is suggesting to the most vulnerable population that the virus is not something they should take as seriously as they otherwise might.”
People who relied on conservative media or social platforms in the early days of the pandemic were more likely to be misinformed about how to prevent the virus or trust conspiracy theories about it spread, according to the May study co-authored by Hall Jamieson. Much of the misinformation centered on downplaying the virus as nothing more than “a common cold,” a comparison amplified by Trump as recently as Tuesday. Nearly one in five respondents said they believed the CDC was exaggerating the seriousness of the virus to undermine the Trump presidency.
As of Tuesday, at least 17 people who had been on the White House grounds or in contact with President Trump had been infected. It remains to be seen if Trump’s choreographed message will resonate if any of them — many prominent Republicans — were to get seriously ill, or even die, says Hall Jamieson. “We’re watching him creating a narrative in real time, and we don’t know where the end point is.”
The United States continues to be mired in around 7 million COVID cases, according to Johns Hopkins University data. As the country enters the fall and winter seasons, there are clear signs of a third resurgence that resembles the numbers in early June. Only Hawaii, Kansas, Missouri and South Carolina have downward trends in new cases, compared to last week.
The disconnect between that grim reality and Trump’s bravado was not lost on some in the President’s party. “I think he let his guard down, and I think in his desire to try to demonstrate that we are somehow coming out of this and that the danger is not still with us — I think he got out over his skis,” Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, told the Houston Chronicle editorial board. “I think it’s a lesson to all of us that we need to exercise self discipline.”
As the stories of many Americans over the past few months can attest, there is a real danger to downplaying the virus. One woman, Kristin Urquiza, has made a crusade of her father’s death after he said he trusted the President’s assessment of the risk posed by COVID. “His only pre-existing condition was trusting Donald Trump, and for that, he paid with his life,” she said in an emotional speech at the Democratic National Convention in August. Former Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain, a supporter of the President who refused to wear a mask, died after contracting the virus. He was diagnosed nine days after attending a Trump campaign rally where few were wearing masks.
Trump’s latest infusion of misinformation into the national conversation and social media could pose an even greater threat if Americans, seeing the image of the carefully bronzed president taking off his mask on the White House lawn less than four days after testing positive for the virus, believe his assessment that, like he claims to have done, “You’re going to beat it.”