PRESIDENTIAL HISTORY is replete with lies and evasions concerning the state of the commander-in-chief’s health. Grover Cleveland underwent secret cancer surgery, in the dead of night, aboard a yacht anchored in Long Island Sound. An ailing Franklin D. Roosevelt won the election in 1944 while claiming to be in the pink—and died three months into his new term. Rumours persist that Ronald Reagan began showing signs of dementia while in office. That the current administration has been less than straightforward about when Donald Trump contracted covid-19, what his subsequent movements were and how sick he remains might have been the most normal drama of his entire presidency.
Yet, as always, he writes his own script. Whereas Roosevelt sought to underplay his sickness, Mr Trump has gone overboard in claiming to have not merely survived the coronavirus, but vanquished it. After three nights in Walter Reed Medical Centre, following his tweeted announcement of a positive covid-19 test on October 2nd, Mr Trump declared that he had not felt better in 20 years, had “learned a lot” about the virus, then got himself discharged.
Back at the White House, he ascended to the Truman balcony, turned to face the cameras and slowly peeled off his face-mask. In subsequent video messages, he called on Americans not to let the virus “dominate your life” and suggested he might be immune to a virus that, according to his doctors, had caused his blood-oxygen level to plummet three days earlier.
The criticism of his actions has been immense—including from parts of the conservative media. More than 210,000 Americans have died of the virus, which Mr Trump downplayed long before he claimed to have conquered it. Five days before his first positive test he presided over a largely maskless gathering at the White House in honour of his latest Supreme Court nominee, Amy Coney Barrett. Two days before it he mocked Joe Biden, in the first presidential debate, for the Democrat’s punctilious mask-wearing. So many of the attendees at the White House event have since come down with the virus, in addition to Mr Trump and his wife Melania, that the media are calling it a superspreader event. And still Mr Trump is trying to find an angle in anti-facemaskism.
Stricken attendees at the White House gathering include Kellyanne Conway, a senior Trump adviser; Chris Christie, a former governor of New Jersey; and, in Mike Lee and Thom Tillis, two Republican senators whose votes will be required to vote Mrs Barrett onto the Supreme Court bench.
Inside the rabbit-hutch offices of the West Wing, the infection rate is higher. The president’s speechwriter, Stephen Miller, another senior aide, Hope Hicks, the press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, and four of her colleagues are among the afflicted. So are two periodic White House visitors, Bill Stepien, the president’s campaign manager, and Ronna McDaniel, chair of the Republican National Committee. The minority of White House employees showing up to work, according to a memo leaked to the New York Times, have been told to wear surgical masks and gowns during any close encounter with the president. This might not seem like a good moment to trumpet masklessness.
Mr Trump was never likely to adopt the covid-contrite demeanour some conservative commentators have recommended. It is not in his nature. Squint hard, however, and there is a sort of rationale for his covid-defiance. Contrition, at this point, might look like an admission of responsibility for a public-health calamity that most Democrats and independents already blame him for. To stop that rot spreading to his own supporters, his defiance is in essence an effort to use his personal hold on them to try to change the subject.