Updated at 6:06 p.m. ET on October 2, 2020.
It is a peculiar calm in the midst of the wild storm. Even as the nation descended into a frenzy over President Donald Trump’s positive coronavirus test, there was silence from the one reliable source of noise for the past five years: the president himself.
At 12:54 this morning, Trump tweeted that he and first lady Melania Trump had tested positive. Since then, there’s been no word from the president himself, although Melania Trump has tweeted. The White House says that Trump has mild symptoms, and during a briefing this morning, Chief of Staff Mark Meadows told reporters that the president “is not only on the job, [but] will remain on the job.”
Later in the afternoon, the White House announced that Trump would go to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center via helicopter.
“President Trump remains in good spirts, has mild symptoms, and has been working throughout the day,” Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said in a statement. “Out of an abundance of caution, and at the recommendation of his physician and medical experts, the president will be working from the presidential offices at Walter Reed for the next few days.”
But there’s little evidence to back up the notion that Trump has been working. Trump was expected to participate in a conference call—perhaps ironically, on “COVID-19 support to vulnerable seniors”—early this afternoon, but Vice President Mike Pence appeared in his stead.
Trump’s silence and the rapidly changing descriptions of his condition only underscore his sudden absence from view. The president has made himself such a consistent presence in American lives, tweeting through every controversy, at all hours, and never missing a chance to weigh in—that the roughly 14 hours of silence (as of this writing) feel monumental. (When Trump went 46 hours without a tweet in June 2017, it made headlines; his posting frequency has actually increased since then.)
Even when Trump is in his personal quarters, he tends to tweet incessantly. He seldom sleeps for long. Many reports have said he likes to sit in bed watching TV and tweeting. If the president is on bed rest, he isn’t using it on his normal pastime.
The silence is all the more remarkable because Trump so values the appearance of vigor. At several moments in the past year, the president has appeared physically shaky—struggling to drink out of a glass, or to descend a ramp—at times when he is, ostensibly, healthy. Trump has bristled at any questions about his health, in part because he has invested a great deal of effort in spreading the message that his opponent, Democrat Joe Biden, is not fit enough to hold the office. (Voters seem to have largely rejected that message.)
Trump also has a long history of issuing dubious claims about his health. As my colleague James Hamblin writes, the president has released next to no substantive information about his health. In November 2019, he made a sudden and still-unexplained trip to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. A recent book by the New York Times reporter Michael Schmidt stated that Pence was told to be on standby to assume the powers of the president. (In response, Trump denied having a series of ministrokes—a claim Schmidt had not made, which only drew attention to the possibility.)
During the 2016 campaign, Trump released a letter from a doctor assessing his health that would have made the North Korean news agencies blush. The doctor who signed it later said that Trump had dictated the letter himself. In 2018, Trump’s physical listed his height as an inch taller than the year before, a number that combined with listed weight to place him just below the threshold for obesity.* An announcement of the results by Ronny Jackson, a Navy officer and the White House physician, was so over-the-top that it raised new questions about how true it could be.
Jackson has since left that role (after a failed nomination as the secretary of veterans affairs and allegations of questionable conduct), and is now almost certain to enter the House as a Republican from Texas next year. Apparently without reexamining Trump, Jackson tweeted that the president was “asympto[ma]tic” and “has NO comorbidities.” News reports swiftly cast doubt on the first claim, and the second appears at odds with the public record.
Trump is hardly the first president to offer fishy information about his health. Grover Cleveland secretly had surgery on a boat to remove a tumor. Woodrow Wilson and Dwight Eisenhower covered up acute health incidents; Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan hid chronic issues. But given public worries about COVID-19, and given the president’s poor record for honesty, especially about his health, the public will rightly have more questions the longer it takes for him to reemerge. A tweet will no longer be enough, given that aides, including Dan Scavino, are known to sometimes tweet from the president’s account.
Former Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney acknowledged as much during a Fox appearance this morning, saying, “I’m not too concerned about the health; I’m just concerned about the perception.”
Mulvaney had a suggestion: “I think it’s important … that the president be visible, however, that he be on the phone, that he be on television, that he gets out on the Truman Balcony, if he can.”
Apparently, he could not.
*This article previously misstated that Donald Trump's 2018 physical placed him above the threshold for obesity. In fact, the numbers reported in the physical put Trump below the threshold for obesity.