A still-infectious U.S. President Donald Trump removed his mask in an apparent display of strength from the White House balcony Monday evening, after leaving the hospital in the middle of his fight with COVID-19.
However, the president’s attempt at a viral moment was still touched by the coronavirus coursing through his body, as footage seemingly shows him gasping for air before staging a stern-faced salute from the balcony.
Trump returned to the White House on Monday evening after a three-night stay at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center following a positive COVID-19 test on Friday. His exact condition remains unclear but he appeared to still be exhibiting symptoms of the virus upon his return to the White House, though he also gave several fist-pumps and thumbs-up salutes as he disembarked the Marine One helicopter.
Raw video shows the president climbing the White House steps, removing his mask, then huffing for several moments through an open mouth. He eventually closes his lips and salutes Marine One as it takes off.
Trump’s staff later edited video of his return into a promo for his Twitter account, prompting many of his supporters to marvel at their beloved leader’s apparent strength.
Many observers pointed out, however, that Trump appeared to be labouring for breath in the middle of the display, in moments captured by news cameras but not depicted in his promo video.
“Trump looks like he is gasping for air,” Twitter user Neal Brennan noted.
He tweeted a brief video with that message, showing Trump huffing and straining before the salute. The video has been watched more than 22 million times since it was posted Monday night. Trump’s own video has racked up 13 million views over that same time period.
“This is a textbook example of increased work breathing,” tweeted Dr. Ilan Schwartz, an infectious disease expert and researcher at the University of Alberta. “In addition to using normal respiratory muscles (the diaphragm & those between the ribs that expand the chest cavity), accessory muscles in his neck are kicking in to help draw a breath.”
Schwartz also noted the president’s “pursed lip breathing,” which he described as a “coping mechanism” for a person trying to keep his airway open.
Questions continue to swirl around the true status of Trump’s health. Trump’s doctor, Sean Conley, offered contradictory and evasive answers to questions about the president’s condition during his three-day stint at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
Trump also muddied the waters with several apparent stunts during his hospital stay. He ventured out of the hospital on Sunday to wave at his supporters from a sealed-off limo, in an incident many criticized as an unnecessary risk for the Secret Service members who rode with him.
The White House also released some official photos of the president allegedly working throughout the day on Saturday. However, metadata suggests the president changed outfits and staged the photos 10 minutes apart.
Trump, who in the past has admitted to deliberately “playing down” the threat of the virus, offered several optimistic tweets about it during his hospital stay.
“I learned a lot about COVID,” he said in a video tweet on Saturday. “I learned it by really going to school. This is the real school. This isn’t the ‘let’s read the books’ school. And I get it, and I understand it, and it’s a very interesting thing, and I’m going to be letting you know about it.”
He announced on Monday afternoon that he would be leaving the hospital, and claimed that he was feeling “better than I did 20 years ago!”
He repeated that claim in a follow-up video after his return to the White House on Monday night.
“Don’t be afraid of it,” he said, in a comment that bucks the advice of doctors around the globe. “Don’t let it dominate, don’t let it take over your lives.”
More than 210,000 Americans have died since the pandemic spread to the United States.
The virus has also made inroads at the White House, where several Trump allies have tested positive over the last week. Many of them attended a celebratory (and maskless) party for Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, last week, though it’s unclear if that was the “superspreader” event behind the White House outbreak.
Trump had access to some of the best medical treatment in the world during his stay at Walter Reed. Doctors gave him a variety of experimental and cutting-edge drugs and steroids, according to reports. He was also placed on oxygen after his blood oxygen levels dropped below normal on at least two occasions, according to reports.
He is expected to continue treatment in isolation at the White House.
“Now I’m better, and maybe I’m immune, I don’t know,” Trump claimed on Monday night.
Dr. Conley says Trump could resume his regular schedule once there is “no evidence of live virus still present” in his system.
Trump resumed his regular activities on Twitter on Tuesday morning, blasting out a tweet drawing a false equivalence between COVID-19 and the seasonal flu.
“We have learned to live with it, just like we are learning to live with Covid, in most populations far less lethal!” he wrote.
Facebook removed Trump’s false claims about the flu under its misinformation policy Tuesday morning. Twitter also flagged the tweet for violating its rules around “spreading misleading and potentially harmful information related to COVID-19.”
Trump told veteran journalist Bob Woodward in February that he knew COVID-19 was “more deadly than … even your strenuous flus.”
The U.S. continues to lead the world in total cases and deaths from COVID-19.