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Doctors Upbeat On Trump's Condition But Provide Contradictory Information

White House physician Sean Conley updates the press on the health status of President Trump on Sunday.
Brendan Smialowski
AFP via Getty Images
White House physician Sean Conley updates the press on the health status of President Trump on Sunday.

Updated a 2:40 a.m. ET

President Trump sought to project an image of vigor in the face of COVID-19, with a surprise motorcade Sunday outside Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where he is being treated, as his physicians suggested he could be discharged to return to the White House as early as Monday.

The president was admitted to Walter Reed on Friday, hours after announcingthat he and the first lady had tested positive for the coronavirus.

On Sunday, the president — masked and waving from the back seat of a black SUV — was briefly driven past supporters gathered outside the compound after promising in a video "a little surprise to some of the great patriots that we have out on the street."

While the crowd of well-wishers delighted in a glimpse of the president, others criticized the impromptu motorcade as "political theater" that needlessly exposed others for the sake of a photo-op.

"That Presidential SUV is not only bulletproof, but hermetically sealed against chemical attack. The risk of COVID19 transmission inside is as high as it gets outside of medical procedures," Dr. James Phillips, chief of disaster medicine at George Washington University and an attending physician at Walter Reed, tweeted. "The irresponsibility is astounding. My thoughts are with the Secret Service forced to play."

Photos showed Secret Service personnel in the vehicle wearing personal protective equipment.

In a Sunday media briefing, Trump's physician, Dr. Sean Conley, said his patient "has continued to improve."

"As with any illness, there are frequent ups and downs, particularly when a patient is being so closely watched 24 hours a day," he said.

Conley explained that the president experienced a high fever and falling oxygen levels at the White House Friday morning. "I recommended [to] the president we try some supplemental oxygen, see how he'd respond."

"He was fairly adamant that he didn't need it," he said. "He was not short of breath; he was tired, had the fever, and that was about it. After about a minute on only 2 liters, his saturation levels were back over 95%. He stayed on that for about an hour."

When asked whether any signs of pneumonia are apparent on the president's X-rays and scans, Conley said, "There's some expected findings but nothing of any major clinical concern."

Trump also received his first dose of the steroid dexamethasone on Saturday, with Conley saying the potential benefits of the treatment outweigh the risks. His care plan also includes a five-day course of remdesivir, which Dr. Brian Garibaldi said the president "tolerated well."

"If he continues to look and feel as well as he does today, our hope is that we can plan for a discharge as early as tomorrow to the White House, where he can continue his treatment course," Garibaldi said at the Sunday briefing.

A similar news conference on Saturday led to more questions, with Conley presenting a timeline to reporters of Trump's diagnosis that was quickly walked back by the White House. A senior administration official — later identified by The Associated Press as Chief of Staff Mark Meadows —contradicted Conley, telling reporters the president's vitals were "very concerning," and that the president was "still not on a clear path to a full recovery."

Conley said Sunday that the statement by Meadows had been "misconstrued."

Asked why he was reluctant during Saturday's briefing to disclose that Trump had been administered oxygen, Conley said he was trying to "reflect the upbeat attitude" of the medical team and the president.

"I didn't want to give any information that might steer the course of illness in another direction," he said. "And in doing so, you know, it came off that we're trying to hide something, which wasn't necessarily true. The matter is, is that [Trump's] doing really well."

White House communications director Alyssa Farah expanded on Conley's comments, telling Fox News on Sunday that he was projecting confidence in order to help his patient.

"It's a very, it's a common medical practice, that you want to convey confidence and you want to raise the spirits of the person you're treating," Farah said. "I know this president, I don't know that he needs his spirits raised. But I think it's actually a very common medical practice to do that."

The president himself tweeted a video Saturday evening in which he said: "I came here, wasn't feeling so well. I feel much better now."

But echoing Meadows, Trump added: "You don't know, over the next period of a few days — I guess that's the real test, so we'll be seeing what happens over those ... next couple of days."

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Barbara Sprunt is a producer on NPR's Washington desk, where she reports and produces breaking news and feature political content. She formerly produced the NPR Politics Podcast and got her start in radio at as an intern on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered and Tell Me More with Michel Martin. She is an alumnus of the Paul Miller Reporting Fellowship at the National Press Foundation. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Pennsylvania native.
Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.