US President Donald Trump has returned to the White House after 72 hours of treatment at a military hospital to face a campaign upended by his COVID-19 infection barely a month before the election that will define his future.
Pumping his fist and giving a thumbs up he emerged from the Walter Reed National Medical Centre in Washington and walked to a vehicle that took him to the Marine One helicopter to fly to the White House.
His doctors cleared him for discharge from the hospital to continue treatment at the official residence.
His personal doctor Sean Conley told reporters, “He’s met or exceeded all standard hospital discharge criteria.”
Trump did not answer questions shouted at him by reporters as he emerged from the hospital.
But in a tweet in the morning he said, “Feeling really good! Don’t be afraid of COVID. Don’t let it dominate your life. We have developed, under the Trump Administration, some really great drugs & knowledge. I feel better than I did 20 years ago!”
At the White House, he walked up the steps to the balcony and in a show of defiance took off his mask and saluted the helicopter crew.
He was criticised for appearing without a mask by several politicians and physicians. Democratic Senator Chris Coons told ABC TV that Trump was being reckless and dangerous.
Biden said at a Florida campaign event earlier, “Now that he’s busy tweeting campaign messages, I would ask him to do this: Listen to the scientists. Support masks. Support a mask mandate nationwide.”
His discharge from the hospital and arrival at the White House were carefully orchestrated by the media savvy president to cut into the prime time TV news and show himself able to function by himself.
Trump’s return to the White House comes as several people close to him have come down with the coronavirus. His press secretary Kayeigh McEnany was the latest to announce that she had tested positive for the virus.
It is estimated that almost 20 White House staffers are ill with COVID-19, two of them from McEnany’s office.
The functioning of the White House will be strained by many staffers having to quarantine themselves due to exposure to those affected by COVID-19.
Trump has been his own best campaigner and now his party has to scramble to make up for the loss of its performer who can also influence support for other candidates on November 3.
The presidential campaign has said that it was launching “Operation MAGA” – Make American Great Again – to continue the electioneering while Trump is a prisoner of the virus and unable to travel.
Vice President Mike Pence will be picking up the campaigning and he will have “a very full aggressive schedule,” Jason Miller, a senior campaign adviser, told NBC TV.
He added that Pence will be backed by the Trump family with sons Donald Jr. and Eric, and daughter Ivanka campaigning intensively.
The campaign will have to devise strategies – likely relying on digital – to get Trump in front of the voters.
Pence will be debating Democratic vice-presidential candidate Kamala Harris on Wednesday under stringent precautions – they will be 13 feet apart and separated by Plexiglas.
Trump is scheduled to debate Biden on October 15, which may have to be conducted virtually because the president is unlikely to be cleared for an in-person face off.
Asked by reporters if and how he would participate in the debate, Biden said he would “listen to the science” and “do whatever the experts say is the appropriate thing to do.”
Trump’s adviser, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani who had helped him prepare for the first debate last month, said, “I think he’ll make every effort to make it. I’m certain he will.”
He told ABC TV, “The doctors assume that by a certain time, he’s going to be in condition” for the debate.
According to the RealClearPolitics aggregation of presidential polls, Trump’s standing has fallen from Thursday, the day before his hospitalisation, to Monday by 1.3 per cent, and Biden’s lead increased to 8.5 per cent.
Trump’s supporters rallied outside the Walter Reed hospital on Sunday prompting him to leave the hospital and drive by to greet them.
In New York City his supporters drove in a convoy to Trump Towers, where he has an apartment, in a show of solidarity. Elsewhere, his backers have been holding “MAGA” meetings.
At the White House Trump is expected to isolate himself but it wasn’t clear if would stay in the residential portion of the building or also go to the Oval Office.
Trump’s health status still has room for concern, especially because he is a 74-year-old man, who is overweight – three markers of high risk.
Conley said, “Though he may not entirely be out of the woods yet, the team and I agree that all our evaluations, and more importantly, his clinical status, support the president’s safe return home, where he’ll be surrounded by world-class medical care, 24/7.”
While he’s back at the White House, “We’ll remain cautiously optimistic and on guard, because we’re in a bit of uncharted territory when it comes to a patient that received the therapies he has so early,” he said.
With a seven-day window for a COVID-19 patient’s situation worsening, Conley said the doctors were looking to this weekend.
“If we can get through to Monday with him remaining the same or better yet, then we will all take that final deep sigh of relief,” he said.
Conley said that Trump had two temporary episodes of low oxygen for which they had given it to him.
Moreover, the experimental medicines Remdesivir and dexamethasone are given to patients in serious conditions, although his doctors say he had not reached that situation.
Citing patient privacy rules, they refused to speak about the specifics of his lung condition.