White House

The White House Owes Americans Transparency on Trump’s Illness

President Trump participates in a phone call with Vice President Mike Pence in his conference room at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., October 4, 2020. ( Tia Dufour/The White House via Reuters)

It is some small comfort that President Trump’s illness shows that not all grace notes have been stamped out of American public life. Some of his most persistent critics made heartfelt statements wishing for his recovery.

We, of course, join them in praying for a full and swift recovery.

Obviously, this is a momentous story. The news that Trump had COVID upended the presidential campaign and raised the prospect of a crisis should he die in office.

At this sensitive moment, it is of the utmost importance that the White House convey accurate information about the president’s condition. People tend to doubt official assurances about a sick leader’s health status in the best of circumstances, and the White House had limited credibility to begin with. It is now clear that the initial talk of the president having “mild” symptoms was misleading, and the White House physician Sean Conley compounded the offense in his press briefing Saturday at Walter Reed hospital by dancing around to avoid disclosing that the president had received supplemental oxygen. On Sunday, he admitted that he was trying, as he put it, to give an upbeat assessment to match the president’s positive attitude.

This won’t do. The guy in the white lab coat should simply give the public the facts about the president’s condition and treatment and leave the spin to the usual suspects. Meanwhile, the president needs to make it clear that he wants his doctors to be transparent, and waive HIPAA and other doctor-patient protections so they can do so.

Trump’s positive test, and those of the First Lady and a number of close aides, immediately raised questions about White House protocols around the virus. There is no doubt that the president has had a cavalier and disdainful attitude toward masks. He mocked Joe Biden for wearing one so often at last Tuesday’s debates.

Masks may be annoying, even more so because some promote them with such religious zeal, but wearing them, especially when indoors or in close proximity to others, is a low-cost way to at least diminish the spread of the virus. The White House believed that it could dispense with masks because it has a regime of daily testing. We now know the virus can slip through even frequently administered tests (and it turns out the tests used by the White House were prone to false negatives).

There has been a focus on the Amy Coney Barrett announcement ceremony as the locus for the spread, yet what unites the White House advisers who have COVID isn’t attendance at that event, but that they work in close proximity to one another all the time. It is at least as likely that the virus spread at indoor events and meetings — or perhaps on flights — than at the outdoor ceremony. Regardless, it is welcome news that masks will now be required in the West Wing, and they should be required at Trump-Pence rallies as well.

The point of masks is to protect others from yourself if you are unknowingly contagious. As such, they are a token of courtesy to others more than anything else, and the president never should have been undermining that message, let alone allowing himself or those around him to potentially put people they came into contact with at risk.

Relatedly, this moment is an opportunity for Trump to hit re-set on his tone-deaf message on COVID that we are always on the cusp of seeing the definitive end of the virus. His lack of realism during the pandemic is one reason his ratings on handling it are so low.

That said, we hope as much of a normal campaign can resume as possible. If Trump is back on his feet, the two next presidential debates should go on, with whatever social distancing necessary to make them safe, or remotely if necessary. On Capitol Hill, where three Republican senators have tested positive, there is no reason that Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation hearings can’t proceed — the Senate Judiciary Committee has already routinely been holding hybrid in-person and virtual hearings.

Everyone knows how Trump-era controversies and dramas tend to recede to the background quickly. Here’s hoping that the president’s illness and hospitalization follow the pattern.

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