When did the president first get infected with the coronavirus? Because Donald Trump is Donald Trump, solid facts about how his case of COVID-19 began, or how it is progressing, are almost impossible to establish. This is the man who once said, under oath, that his literal measurable net worth “goes up and down with markets and with attitudes and with feelings, even my own feelings,” and so far the public account of his medical condition has worked the same way; his doctors know he’s watching them brief the press, and so their briefings unfold as an extension of the president’s own mental state, replete with lies, evasions, contradictions, and rowbacks of previous lies.
How many days has Trump been sick? How many times has he been dosed with oxygen? The numbers fluctuate with Trump’s feelings, leaving the uptalking White House physician, Sean Conley, to explain away the discrepancies: Conley had denied the existence of one oxygen treatment because “I was trying to reflect, uh, the, uh, the upbeat attitude that the team? The president? In his course of illness has had?”
The most reliable information, then, seems to exist in the negative spaces. After five years of dealing with Trump as a candidate and president, filling in the blanks has become second nature. The doctors say they scanned his lungs but refuse to talk about what the scans show: Trump’s lungs are most likely messed up. The long list of his medications does not include hydroxychloroquine, which he’d spent months touting as a wonder cure: Trump knows hydroxychloroquine is bullshit.
There is one question that is both elementary and essential: When was the president’s last negative COVID test? Doctors refuse to answer this. “I don’t want to go backwards,” Conley said Monday when he was asked about it. This position makes no sense as a matter of medicine or basic public interest: Knowing when the president last tested negative would help everyone understand both how rapidly his illness has been developing and how many other people—including Joe Biden, at the first presidential debate—may have been exposed to infection by being around him. The answer could, among other things, determine whether or not both candidates should be taken off the campaign trail.
So why not tell us? “I don’t want to go backwards” is what a politician says when asked about a scandal. What could the scandal be? There’s some speculation that the doctors and the White House are dodging the question because Trump tested positive earlier than he’s willing to admit—that he went out to a fundraiser at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, on Thursday, if not to the debate two days before, while concealing a positive test result. This would explain the garbled timeline the doctors presented and retracted over the weekend, where they said the diagnosis was already 72 hours old, then claimed to have misspoken. It would be a satisfyingly spectacular account of presidential depravity.
But there’s a competing theory that seems even more plausible and more perfectly Trumpian:
The more I consider it, the more compelling it seems. Trump wasn’t getting tested for the virus at all. What reason do we have to believe that he was getting tested? Just that the White House said he was. We already know what the White House’s word is worth, about everything having to do with the president’s activities or the pandemic.
Now imagine Donald Trump—who will not sit through a simple intelligence briefing even if the words have been swapped out for pretty pictures—submitting to a daily coronavirus test. Picture someone trying to stick a swab up his nose for the second or 20th or 100th time, or bringing him a tube to spit into each morning. His whole life has been built around never doing anything he doesn’t want to do. Who’s going to make him? He won’t even wear a mask! He won’t stay in the hospital with a life-threatening infection! It’s absurd to think he was ever following a rigorous testing regimen. (The White House did not respond to questions from Slate about whether the president had been tested regularly, and when his last negative test was.)
The White House’s entire theory of virus testing was based on the premise that by rapid-testing everyone who came there, they could keep contagious people away from the president. It was doomed magical thinking, depending on deliberate ignorance about how testing and containment really worked, but that was the plan. So why would the president have to be tested, if he didn’t have symptoms? The testing was to protect him from other people. He would never try to protect other people from himself.
Update, Oct. 6, 2020, at 10:53 p.m.: The New York Times is reporting that the president “was not tested every day”:
White House officials conceded on Tuesday that there had been an impression created that Mr. Trump was getting tested every day, and a reliance on testing as if it were a curative measure as opposed to a diagnostic.
Yet the president himself was not tested every day, according to two people familiar with the practices. A senior administration official would only say on Tuesday that Mr. Trump was tested “regularly.” Mr. Trump himself told reporters in the White House briefing room in July that “I do take probably on average a test every two days, three days.”
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