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5 October 2020updated 28 Jul 2021 5:29am

Contagious lies: the risky handling of Donald Trump’s Covid-19 diagnosis

The US has a long history of concealing poor presidential health, but not in the case of infectious diseases.  

By Emily Tamkin

In some respects, the secrecy surrounding President Donald Trump’s Covid-19 diagnosis – from his decision not to disclose the outcome of his first “rapid” test result on Thursday 1 October, to the contradictory statements regarding his recovery – has a precedent in US history.

In 1919, then-president Woodrow Wilson had a stroke. The details of this were largely hidden from the press for months, while his wife, Edith Bolling Wilson, effectively ran the country.

In 1932, the country elected Franklin D Roosevelt as president. Roosevelt had polio and was in a wheelchair, a fact that he and his family tried to keep secret (though the press agreed not to take photos of him in his wheelchair, so it was arguably not so much a secret as a cover-up).

In the 1950s, physicians originally tried to conceal news of president Dwight Eisenhower’s heart attack. The president overruled them, instructing his press secretary: “Just tell them everything.” In the 1960s, John F Kennedy’s back pains and problems were kept hidden.

But in other important ways, Trump’s case is a break from that tradition entirely; most notably, perhaps, because Covid-19 is contagious. It may have been outrageous that a First Lady was effectively secretly running the country, but Americans were not at risk of having a stroke because they were unaware Wilson had suffered one. On the other hand, the Trump administration potentially endangered many when it failed to speedily reveal last Thursday that presidential aide Hope Hicks had tested positive for the virus.

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It is not clear, at present, how many people might have fallen sick since interacting with the president. So far, we know that at least seven attendees of the White House event announcing Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court nomination on Saturday 26 September have tested positive, including Trump. Each of those presumably came into contact with other people in the days following the event. Republican Senators at the event have since lunched with their Republican colleagues.

The president and his family then showed up to the first presidential debate on Tuesday 29 September, too late to officially be tested by the Cleveland Clinic, breaking rules that the campaign had previously agreed to.

Hicks’s positive test result was reportedly known to White House officials by Thursday morning, and yet this was not made public by the administration until after Bloomberg News reported the story. That day, Trump travelled to an indoor campaign event in New Jersey and donors at that event have since flown around the country. The Biden campaign, including those who had been in the same room as Trump and his entourage at the debate, found out from media reports that Hicks had tested positive, not from the Trump campaign itself.

[See also: US democracy in peril]

It is therefore likely that the administration’s handling of the news of Hicks’s infection put other people at risk, and that its handling of the president’s confirmed diagnosis continues to do so: on Sunday evening, the president decided to get in a car and wave to supporters gathered around the hospital. In that car, along with the president, were secret service agents. Secret service agents are expected to take a bullet for the president, and it is, of course, within the president’s rights to make them accompany him so that he can wave to his supporters. But it does serve as a reminder that one cannot protect a president from himself or others from that president.

While all presidents downplay realities or keep certain secrets, this president and those around him lie with such frequency, and so spectacularly, that the president’s tweet announcing he had tested positive was greeted with scepticism – did he really have the virus, or was this to distract from revelations about his tax returns and his debate performance? The obfuscation about Trump’s infection also comes amid distortions about mail-in voting, about the security of this election, and about his administration’s pandemic response.

[See also: Donald Trump’s use of conspiracy theories means his diagnosis is already being questioned]

And, like the virus, the lying also appears to be contagious. The doctor who spoke to the press about Trump’s condition on Sunday contradicted his own statement from the previous day. The president’s oxygen levels had been low but, Sean Conley said, he had initially left out this information to keep the messaging “upbeat”.

At time of writing, the official word is that the president could be discharged on Monday. But nobody can really know whether that is true, just as nobody knows what is really going on with the president’s lungs, or why he’s on dexamethasone, a steroid typically reserved for the most serious Covid cases.

Meanwhile, on Sunday, the same day the good doctor put on a happy face and the president waved his fans, the US recorded the highest number of Covid-19 infections in a single day in almost two months.