US President Donald Trump was given oxygen on Friday evening as his vitals were “very concerning”, sources close to the president said on Saturday, as White House officials contradicted the president's doctors with a downbeat assessment of his health.
Confusion reigned over the true state of the US president’s fight against Covid-19 as he appeared on the steps of the hospital to tell the cameras that he was doing “very well”, a statement countered by Mr Trump's own chief of staff moments later who said he was “still not on a clear path to a full recovery”.
The president moved to allay the fears himself, tweeting about the “plague” and giving thanks to the doctors at Walter Reed Medical Center where he was being treated, writing: “With their help, I am feeling well!”
The contrasting briefings came on another dramatic day in Washington as the virus was confirmed to have spread to more White House figures and a US senator exactly one month before the US election on November 3, adding to the uncertainty about the campaign.
The first update came from Mr Trump’s doctors at around noon on Saturday who gave an upbeat assessment on the president, saying that he was “improving” and was neither on oxygen nor having breathing difficulties.
However Dr Sean P Conley, the White House physician, repeatedly refused to categorically rule out that Mr Trump had ever been given oxygen during his treatment, instead giving carefully worded comments.
“Thursday no oxygen. None at this moment. And yesterday, with the team while we were all here, he was not on oxygen,” Dr Conley said at one point, leaving open the possibility that some had been administered on Friday.
The New York Times, the Associated Press and ABC News then reported that Mr Trump had indeed been given supplementary oxygen on Friday, citing sources close to the president.
There were also reports Mr Trump had experienced breathing difficulties that day. The reports suggested that Mr Trump’s health had actually been in a much more concerning state than publicly admitted by White House officials at the time, who insisted he had only “mild symptoms” when he was flown to hospital on Friday late afternoon.
That conclusion was reinforced by a statement given by Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, which was briefed to the small group of reporters who were at the hospital just moments after the rosy assessment by the president’s doctors to the camera.
“The president’s vitals over the last 24 hours were very concerning and the next 48 hours will be critical in terms of his care. We’re still not on a clear path to a full recovery,” said Mr Meadows.
The comment was first given off-the-record then put on the record.
Doctors, Nurses and ALL at the GREAT Walter Reed Medical Center, and others from likewise incredible institutions who have joined them, are AMAZING!!!Tremendous progress has been made over the last 6 months in fighting this PLAGUE. With their help, I am feeling well!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 3, 2020
The lack of clarity in public about whether Mr Trump did take oxygen was not the only confusion that came from the doctors comments to camera, which was the first time they answered questions since Mr Trump caught coronavirus.
Dr Conley said in the briefing at Saturday lunchtime that they were “just 72 hours into the diagnosis now”.
Taken literally, that would have meant Mr Trump was diagnosed with coronavirus on Wednesday lunchtime.
The comment triggered immediate controversy because it would have meant that Mr Trump had travelled to a fundraising event in his Bedminster golf course on Thursday knowing he had the virus and that the public had not been told until more than 24 hours after the positive result.
The issue was eventually clarified by the White House, with Dr Conley releasing a statement saying he had said 72 hours rather than 'day three'.
He confirmed Mr Trump’s first diagnosis had indeed been on Thursday evening, as previously understood.
Elsewhere in the briefing there was positive news about Mr Trump’s health.
Doctors said they were monitoring his heart, liver and kidneys and there were no concerning signs caused by either the virus or the treatments they have administered.
Col Sean N Dooley, one of the doctors treating Mr Trump, said at the briefing: “The president this morning is not on oxygen, not having difficulty breathing or walking around the White House medical unit upstairs.
“He’s in exceptionally good spirits. In fact as we were completing our multidisciplinary rounds this morning the quote he left us with was ‘I feel like I could walk out of here today’. And that was a very encouraging comment from the president.”
Mr Trump was said to no longer have a fever.
Dr Conley said Mr Trump had been experiencing a mild cough, nasal congestion and fatigue on Thursday but said those were “resolving and improving” now.
However he cautioned that the most critical days for coronavirus patients were days seven-to-10 after diagnosis.
Mr Trump was on day three on Saturday.
A Vanity Fair reporter, citing Republicans close to the White House, claimed Mr Trump had asked aides before being taken to hospital, "Am I going out like Stan Chera?" Mr Chera was a friend of the president's who died from the virus.