In Depth

Why everybody’s talking about Donald Trump’s ‘triumphalist’ White House return

President publicly removes mask in defiant homecoming that sets tone for US election run-in

Stepping out onto the White House lawn from a helicopter before tearing off his face mask and telling Americans “to get out there” and not fear Covid-19 - Donald Trump the showman was out of hospital and back on the world stage last night.

Ascending the South Portico staircase, the “contagious” US leader stopped in front of an illuminated entrance and “brazenly removed his mask” in a “triumphalist” homecoming three days after being flown to Maryland’s Walter Reed military hospital for treatment for coronavirus, The Guardian reports.

The carefully staged-managed event fell somewhere between The Apprentice and Apocalypse Now, says Politico London Playbook’s Alex Wickham - and “set the tone” for the rest of the presidential election campaign.

Return of the president

Arriving at the White House, Trump waved, gave two thumbs up and saluted as Marine One lifted off from the South Lawn. Having discarded his mask, he then walked inside where staff were visible, before later re-emerging “for what appeared to be a film shoot”, The Guardian reports.

Video footage of the event shows that Trump was “breathing hard”, and swayed on the spot while watching the helicopter leave the lawn, adds the newspaper. But the president maintained his defiant stance about the virus, which has killed more than 210,000 Americans, according to latest figures.

In a video subsequently shared on his Twitter account, he said: “Don’t let it dominate you. Don’t be afraid of it. You’re gonna beat it. We have the best medical equipment. We have the best medicines, all developed recently.”

Trump, who has openly questioned public health guidelines, added: “Nobody that’s a leader would not do what I did. And I know there’s a risk, there’s a danger, but that’s OK. 

“And now I’m better and maybe I’m immune – I don’t know! But don’t let it dominate your lives. Get out there. Be careful.”

The film was a return to “campaign mode”, says Politico’s Wickham. And as The New York Times notes, the president’s “regret-nothing approach” shows that he does not intend to “pivot in his handling of the pandemic despite his own medical crisis and the growing number of infections among his inner circle”.

On the campaign trail

Health officials had hoped that Trump would be “chastened” by his personal coronavirus battle and those of his White House staff, says The New York Times says.

Whispers had circulated that the experience might even lead him to “act decisively to persuade his supporters that wearing masks and social distancing were essential to protecting themselves and their loved ones”, the paper continues.

But judging by his first full public appearance since being admitted to hospital last Friday, most commentators believe the US leader has been emboldened by his partial recovery.

Despite still being infectious, Trump has continued “downplaying the virus”, says The Washington Post. In a tweet shortly before leaving hospital, he wrote: “Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life.”

He added: “I feel better than I did 20 years ago!”

The president’s messaging has been condemned by scientists. The nation’s leading infectious diseases expert Anthony Fauci, a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, has warned that Trump could suffer a “reversal” in his progress

“I’m not involved in his primary care,” Fauci told CNN. “But the issue is that he’s still early enough in the disease that it’s no secret that if you look at the clinical course of people sometimes, when you’re five to eight days in, you can have a reversal.”

Harald Schmidt, an assistant professor of health policy at the University of Pennsylvania, told The Washington Post that he was “struggling for words” following the president’s “utterly irresponsible” performance after returning to the White House.

But with mask wearing and adherence to social distancing firmly established as political issues in the run-up to the November election, Trump is signalling “an unbroken line” in his “cavalier attitude to the virus”, The Guardian reports.

Game on

With Trump out of the hospital, Joe Biden was free to begin attacking the president again, after suspending negative campaigning last week.

Wasting no time, the Democratic candidate led the criticism of the president’s theatrical White House homecoming, describing the removal of his mask as needlessly “macho”.

“Anybody who contracts the virus by essentially saying, ‘masks don’t matter, social distancing doesn’t matter,’ I think is responsible for what happens to them,” Biden said. 

What is this macho thing, ‘I'm not going to wear a mask?’ What’s the deal here? Big deal, does it hurt you? Be patriotic for god’s sake. Take care of yourself, but take care of your neighbours,” he added.

Trump’s team received another blow to their election hopes during the incumbent’s hospitalisation, with a NBC/Wall Street Journal survey giving Biden a 53% to 39% lead. 

And with FiveThirtyEight polling also showing that the majority of Americans are unhappy with the response to the pandemic, the “transformation of the White House into a vector of a deadly pathogen” will do little to calm Team Trump’s nerves, The Washington Post says.

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