After Donald Trump announced that he had the coronavirus, his physician Sean P. Conley released a short statement confirming the diagnosis and noting that Trump and Melania “are both well at this time.” Another memo from Conley released Friday afternoon said that the president “remains fatigued but in good spirits.” Conley also said that Trump had received a dose of an antibody cocktail made by Regeneron, which has not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, effectively making the president a test subject for the experimental drug. Soon afterward, Trump headed to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where he is expected to remain for “the next few days,” according to press secretary Kayleigh McEnany.
Presumably further updates on the president’s health, and counsel on his choices, will come from Conley, so it’s worthwhile to ask: Who is Conley? He’s a U.S. Navy veteran who has been the official White House doctor since May 2018. He succeeds Ronny Jackson, who once declared that Trump has “good genes” and “absolutely no cognitive or mental issues whatsoever.” Jackson, who also served under Barack Obama, would reportedly prescribe himself controlled substances and drink at work. He’s now running for Congress in Texas. (Both of these people, to be clear, are different from the doctor who in 2015 signed his name to a note dictated by Trump saying that he would be “the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.”)
Conley’s LinkedIn says that he graduated from the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, has served in the U.S. Navy as an emergency physician, and should be, based on my math, about 40 years old. The real question is: Can we trust Conley to keep us in the loop, with clear and accurate statements about the president’s health? He’s stayed relatively out of the spotlight during his tenure so far, but let’s see what we can glean from the few things he has said publicly about Trump.
After a physical exam in February 2019, the first he oversaw as White House physician, Conley deemed Trump “in very good health,” adding “I anticipate he will remain so for the duration of his Presidency, and beyond.” The exam involved 11 specialists, but Conely gave no further details on who they were, and how they were involved in the exam. At the time, CNN reported, “The physical results offered more limited information than last year’s.” In November, after Trump went to the hospital for an unscheduled medical visit, there was speculation that he’d had a heart attack. Conley wrote in a memo that there was nothing wrong with his heart—it was a “routine, planned interim checkup.”
I am certainly not Trump’s doctor, but it seems a little suspect that a pat “in very good health” accurately describes an elderly person who is actively fearful of exercise. And it seems like there should be some explanation as to why Trump, a man whose every move is planned out due to him being the president, made a pit stop at a hospital. At the very least, these reports do not display a predilection for nuance and transparency on Conley’s behalf but a soft backing up of the president’s own image of himself.
Conley’s handling so far of Trump COVID-19 announcements doesn’t inspire further confidence. In March, Trump shook hands with someone who later developed COVID-19 symptoms and then ate dinner at the same table as someone else who later tested positive for the coronavirus. The public was concerned about these encounters, but Conley wrote that “these interactions would be categorized as LOW risk for transmission” and that “testing for COVID-19 is not currently indicated” by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Multiple doctors went on the record to CNN disagreeing with this call, given the multiple exposures, the fact that the president could spread COVID-19 to a lot of people if he had it, and that it is of particular importance to know as soon as possible whether the person in charge of America is sick with an alarming new illness.
Finally, after a member of Trump’ staff tested positive for COVID-19 in May, Conley shared in a memo that he had put Trump on hydroxychloroquine, an antimalarial drug … preventively:
After numerous discussions he and I had regarding the evidence for and against the use of hydroxychloroquine, we concluded the potential benefit from treatment outweighed the relative risks.
The broader medical community expressed some dissatisfaction with this choice. First, the trials on hydroxychloroquine gestured at its potential as a treatment for sick people, rather than as its potential as a prophylactic medication. Second, those trials were tiny, and even then, provided mixed results as to its effectiveness, as a Stat News piece fact-checking Trump’s enthusiasm for the drug noted, in addition to the fact that hydroxychloroquine could cause significant side effects. The evidence for the drug as a COVID-19 treatment later failed to pan out. We don’t know whether Trump had any negative reaction to the drug.
So, to sum up: Trump’s physician has told us repeatedly that Trump is in great health and generally declined to share more details. He has said he didn’t think Trump needed to take a test after being potentially exposed to the coronavirus this spring. And rather than, say, insisting the president start wearing masks, he decided that the best course of action for preventing Trump from getting the coronavirus was for him to take an unproven medication. All we can do now is wait to see what Conley will tell us next.