Photos and videos of U.S. President Donald Trump supposedly working through his COVID-19 treatment have aroused suspicion online after several eagle-eyed users pointed out that his “work” appeared to involve signing blank sheets of paper and sitting with empty binders.
The doubts surfaced over the weekend amid a tide of contradictory information from the White House and the president’s doctors, who have offered conflicting news about the timeline of his diagnosis. The president himself also has a long and well-documented history of misrepresenting reality around a variety of subjects, from crowd size and weather to the true threat of the coronavirus.
Two photos taken Saturday by Joyce Boghosian, the official White House photographer, have come under particular scrutiny. The images show Trump appearing to sign paperwork at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., on Saturday, one day after he was admitted for treatment. Both photos were released through the White House.
One image shows a tie-less Trump sitting at a round table in a suit jacket, signing a piece of paper with a Sharpie marker. A binder and some folders are also scattered across the desk.
Close inspection shows the paper is blank, as many critics pointed out on Twitter.
Another photo shows Trump, still without his tie, leafing through a folder at a long boardroom table. He is not wearing a suit jacket in the second photo (it seems to be hanging on his chair), but he is still holding the marker.
The photo op sparked a flurry of questions about the nature of Trump’s alleged work, given that he appeared to be signing a blank sheet of paper. Thousands suggested the photos were staged.
Several journalists have also pointed out that the two photos may have been taken within minutes of each other, despite the change in backdrop and attire.
Metadata on the Associated Press website shows the photo of Trump in a jacket was created at 5:25 p.m. on Saturday, while the one of him without the jacket was created at 5:35 p.m. The images were uploaded to the AP’s system early on Sunday, data shows.
It wouldn’t be the first time the former reality TV star staged a bit of paperwork theatre. In 2015, for example, he tweeted photos of himself seemingly signing his tax returns, which are depicted as huge stacks of papers.
Trump has paid no more than US$750 in federal income tax since becoming president, and paid nothing for at least 11 years over the last two decades, the New York Times recently reported. The president has disputed that number but has not released his tax returns, bucking a tradition that presidential nominees — including his opponent, Joe Biden — have followed for decades.
Many have raised questions about the safety of Boghosian, the photographer who would have had to be in the same room as the COVID-19-positive president for the photoshoot.
Trump has also faced criticism for taking a brief spin around the hospital in his motorcade on Sunday when he waved to his supporters outside. Photos and video show Trump sitting in the back of a vehicle with members of the Secret Service. Everyone in the car appeared to be wearing masks.
“This is insanity,” tweeted Dr. James P. Phillips, a doctor at Walter Reed who has often criticized Trump’s response to the pandemic. “Every single person in the vehicle during that completely unnecessary presidential ‘drive-by’ just now has to be quarantined for 14 days. They might get sick. They may die.”
Trump announced on Twitter early Friday that he and first lady Melania Trump had tested positive for the virus. The president’s doctor, Sean Conley, and his chief of staff, Mark Meadows, have offered conflicting accounts of his diagnosis. On Friday, for example, Conley was evasive when asked multiple times whether Trump had been given oxygen at any point.
Conley admitted to choosing his words carefully in a follow-up statement on Saturday.
“I was trying to reflect the upbeat attitude that the team, the president, that his course of illness has had. Didn’t want to give any information that might steer the course of illness in another direction,” Conley said.
“And in doing so, you know, it came off that we were trying to hide something, which wasn’t necessarily true. The fact of the matter is that he’s doing really well.”
White House aide Alyssa Farah told the AP that Conley was trying to boost the president’s mood with his words.
“When you’re treating a patient, you want to project confidence, you want to lift their spirits, and that was the intent.”
The virus has spread rapidly through Trump’s staff in recent days, with White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany the latest to test positive. Former White House counsellor Kellyanne Conway, his campaign manager Bill Stepien, his so-called “body man” Nick Luna, and Chris Christie, who helped Trump prepare for the debate, have all tested positive since then.
The president has rarely been photographed with a mask in public, and his staff and supporters are typically seen maskless at events. Trump also mocked Biden at the first presidential debate for his use of a mask in public.
“When needed, I wear masks. I don’t wear masks like him,” Trump said during the debate. “Every time you see him, he’s got a mask. He could be speaking 200 feet away from them, and he shows up with the biggest mask I’ve ever seen.”
More than 209,000 Americans have died since the pandemic began.
“If we have between 100,000 and 200,000 we’ve all together done a very good job,” Trump said of the potential death toll back in March.
Trump claimed in a video from the hospital over the weekend that he’s learned “a lot” from his experience with the virus.
“I learned it by really going to school. This is the real school, this isn’t the ‘let’s read the book’ school, and I get it, and I understand it.”
The 74-year-old president, who is clinically obese, was still in the hospital on Monday morning.
He announced later in the day that he would be leaving the hospital Monday night.
“I feel better than I did 20 years ago!” he claimed on Twitter.
Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:
Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.
To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out. In situations where you can’t keep a safe distance from others, public health officials recommend the use of a non-medical face mask or covering to prevent spreading the respiratory droplets that can carry the virus. In some provinces and municipalities across the country, masks or face coverings are now mandatory in indoor public spaces.