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Politics Chat: President Remains At Walter Reed Hospital After Coronavirus Diagnosis


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: So I just want to tell you that I'm starting to feel good. You don't know over the next period of a few days - I guess that's the real test. So we'll be seeing what happens over those next couple of days.


That's the president in a video last night attempting to put to rest the many concerns raised by a briefing by his medical team, led by presidential doctor Sean Conley, earlier in the day.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: He has not received any supplemental oxygen.

SEAN CONLEY: He's not on oxygen right now. That's right.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: You said he was - he's fever-free now. What was his fever when he had it?

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: What do you see as the probability that he will need supplemental oxygen going forward?

CONLEY: I don't want to put a percentage on it.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Doctor, what was the date of the president's last negative test?

CONLEY: I'm not going to get into all the...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: Is there any clarity on how he became infected?

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: Has he ever been on supplemental oxygen?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what do we actually know at this perilous moment for the president and the country? Let's welcome NPR science correspondent Richard Harris.

Good morning.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: And NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

Mara, welcome as always.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Happy to be here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. Richard, I'm going to start with you. Let's talk about remdesivir. We're told the president received his second course of that treatment last night. Tell us about it.

HARRIS: Yes, this drug is designed to stop the virus from mass-producing inside the body. And the FDA has authorized its use but specifically for people who are sick enough that they need help breathing. You know, when it was tried in people with mild to moderate symptoms, it actually didn't seem to help. But I should say that observation was based on a small sample, so we don't really know exactly where this drug is useful. The president's doctors are using it because it theoretically could help prevent an infection from getting worse. Now, let's remember, no drug is risk-free. So they are betting that the possible benefits of this drug will outweigh whatever risk there might be in giving it to him.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Richard, does it tell us anything about where the president is in the course of this illness?

HARRIS: Not that much, actually, because the president's doctors aren't really following standard procedure for their very non-standard patient. You know, that said, it appears that the president is fairly early in the course of his illness. So part of the strategy here is to do whatever they can to stop it from progressing. That's why they also gave the president infusions of experimental antibodies, which they hope will block the virus. Early experimental results from this unapproved drug hint that it might be of some value, but we simply don't know at this point. And again, no drug is risk-free. So this was a judgment call that the benefits would out-risk the possible harms.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right, Mara. What did you make of that press conference from the medical team yesterday? It was quite something. What could possibly explain why Sean Conley seemed less than forthcoming and why they had to then try and clean up so many details afterward?

LIASSON: Well, it's really a head-scratcher. It was either basic incompetence or the president didn't want people to know that - whether or not he'd had oxygen. Just so many basic questions - the timeline, when he was infected - you know, it's mystifying. Now, that being said, in the past, presidential doctors have not always been completely forthcoming - not to this extent. But the phrases he's in good spirits, he's resting comfortably - those are all political euphemisms that are used to describe presidential illness. It's kind of the equivalent of, I'm leaving my job to spend more time with my family. But this one really does take the cake because they spent the whole day having to clean up. And they once again made a blow to their own credibility, which already is low.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Richard, let's try to nail down this timeline because there's a lot of confusion about this. The president's tweet announcing that he had tested positive came at 1 a.m. on Friday. So we've been living this story for just over 48 hours. What do we know about how long the president and the White House have been living with this?

HARRIS: Well, as Mara just said, it's really unfortunate that over the past 24 hours, it's hard to know where the factual information is coming from, either the White House or the president's doctors. Now, the doctors in the press conference yesterday suggested at first that the president's disease was diagnosed on Wednesday, not late Thursday. They walked back that comment, but I can't tell you which version of events is, in fact, correct.

That said, the evidence that we have seen suggests that the president got sick on Thursday, plus or minus. So he's still apparently in the early days of this disease. You know, it's important to remember that COVID-19 has an unpredictable course. A rapid deterioration, should it happen, is more likely sometime in the first seven to 10 days. And we're probably around Day 4 right now, as best we can tell.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Richard, was the White House reception for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett a superspreader event? I'm asking that because, of course, many people who were there have also become infected. Is there a clinical definition to that term that fits what we saw after that event a week ago yesterday?

HARRIS: Well, when you look at how many people who attended that event, which was both indoors and outdoors, later got sick, the simplest explanation is someone there was breathing out a lot of the coronavirus and spreading it around. Public health officials will ultimately decide whether to label this as a superspreader event. But, you know, I wouldn't be at all surprised if they do, considering how many attendees are now infected. You know, health officials could gather viral samples from all these people and see if they were all infected with the same variant of the virus, and that would really nail this down. But I actually don't know if anyone plans to do that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And we should remind people that, of course, the reason that so many people ostensibly got infected was because very few people were wearing masks. People were not social distancing. There were scenes of people hugging and standing very closely and also being indoors.

Mara, what do we know about what people think about all this - or are the polls still only capturing events of the debate last Tuesday?

LIASSON: We don't have polling on this yet, but we do know that most Republican strategists don't think this is a good thing for the president.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, how could it be?

LIASSON: It undercuts his - yes, it undercuts his macho message on masks. It puts the COVID epidemic back front and center instead of the improving economy or his court pick. And even though it's possible that there will be a upswell of sympathy for the president, that doesn't mean that that will translate into votes. What I've heard from people on both sides of the aisle is that the ads just write themselves. He couldn't keep himself safe. How could he possibly keep you or your family or the country safe?

So I think we don't know how long it's going to be till he goes back on the campaign trail. We're not sure about the ramifications for the campaign on a day-to-day basis. But bottom line, I haven't talked to anyone who thinks this is a good thing for the president just a couple weeks before Election Day.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. Mara, what about that statement yesterday, initially attributable only to a source familiar with the president's health, that ran counter to the mood set out by the doctors, which was so optimistic? Let me just repeat that quote. The president's vitals over the last 24 hours were very concerning, and the next 48 hours will be critical in terms of care. We're still not on a clear path to full recovery. And I'm putting this to you because according to the AP, it's not from a medical doctor.

LIASSON: No, the AP reported that it was from chief of staff Mark Meadows. Now, Mark Meadows did go on Fox News last night and - confirming what he had reportedly said off the record. Here's what he said.


MARK MEADOWS: Yesterday morning, we were real concerned about that. He had a fever, and his blood oxygen level had dropped rapidly. And yet, in typical style, this president was up and walking around.

LIASSON: So just another thing that adds to the confusion and undermines the credibility of the White House. Why did Mark Meadows decide to do that yesterday? Unclear. Was he trying to correct the record? Was he trying to set the stage for a dramatic recovery? We don't know.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Richard, what's your take on what seems like a back and forth between the president or at least the president's doctors and the president's chief of staff?

HARRIS: Yeah. I actually defer to Mara on this. I think it's more politics than medicine, as far as I can tell. The statement about critical 48 hours really tells us that the public was not hearing the whole truth about the president's condition on Friday. Saturday, you know, after Mark Meadows acknowledged that the president's health was more precarious on Friday than we'd been led to believe, kind of helped fill that in a little bit. You know, but medically, there's nothing magic about 48 hours. This disease can be unpredictable for more than a week.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And supplemental oxygen - I mean, we heard many reporters asking about that. Richard, why is that so key to knowing the president's condition that they chose to hide that he had been given it?

HARRIS: Well, people get supplemental oxygen if their lungs aren't working at full capacity, and most people who are infected with the coronavirus don't need oxygen. So that's actually an indication the president really got hit by this virus. The president, you know, has - was suffering from fatigue, we now know. And so that's consistent with the idea that he was really taking a hit here. And, you know, most people who get these symptoms recover. And we're told that the president doesn't need oxygen at the moment and doesn't have a fever. But because COVID can be unpredictable, his condition now really doesn't tell us about the ultimate course of his disease.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Mara, we're a month away from Election Day. People are already voting. The actual health of the president is unclear, as we know. Trump, in many ways, has made this administration a one-man show. Are you hearing any concerns from your sources about the stability of the government right now?

LIASSON: Well, what we're told is that there's no talk about transferring authority to the vice president, even temporarily. But there's a lot of things we don't know. Excuse me. We don't know how, as Richard said, what course will this virus take with the president? Will the president be able to, you know, complete his duties? Now, that video was meant to send a message. It was the president sitting at a desk. He was signing a piece of paper. It looked like a blank piece of paper, but it was impossible to tell. And they want to say that he's doing OK. And, yes, there's concern about the government, but the government has a lot of ways to continue going even when the president is sick.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson and NPR science correspondent Richard Harris.

Thanks to you both.

HARRIS: Happy to be with you.

(SOUNDBITE OF CUT COPY SONG, "AUTOBAHN MUSIC BOX") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.