Zeke Miller, Jill Colvin and Aamer Madhani
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump, said to be making progress in his recovery from COVID-19, tweeted his eagerness to return to the campaign trail Tuesday even as the outbreak that has killed more than 210,000 Americans reached ever more widely into the upper echelons of the U.S. government.
As Trump convalesced out of sight in the White House, the administration defended the protections it has put in place to protect the staff working there to treat and support him. Trump again publicly played down the virus on Twitter after his return from a three-day hospitalization, though even more aides tested positive, including one of his closest advisers, Stephen Miller.
In one significant national coronavirus action, Trump declared there would be no action before the election on economic-stimulus legislation — an announcement that came not long after the Federal Reserve chairman said such help was essential for recovery with the nation reeling from the human and economic cost of the pandemic. Stocks fell on the White House news.
As for Trump's own recovery, his doctor, Navy Cmdr. Sean Conley, said in a letter that the president had a "restful" Monday night at the White House and "reports no symptoms."
Meanwhile, Trump was grappling with next political steps exactly four weeks from Election Day. Anxious to project strength, Trump, who is still contagious with the virus, tweeted Tuesday that he was planning to attend next week's debate with Democrat Joe Biden in Miami and "It will be great!"
Biden, for his part, said he and Trump "shouldn't have a debate" as long as the president remains COVID positive.
Biden told reporters in Pennsylvania that he was "looking forward to being able to debate him" but said "we're going to have to follow very strict guidelines."
Elsewhere in the government, the scope of the outbreak was still being uncovered. On Tuesday, the nation's top military leaders including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, and the vice chairman, Gen. John Hyten, were in quarantine after exposure to Adm. Charles W. Ray, the vice commandant of the Coast Guard.
It was not known how Ray contracted the virus, but he attended an event for military families at the White House on Sept. 27. The Coast Guard said in a statement that Ray felt mild symptoms over the weekend and was tested on Monday.
Also testing positive Tuesday was Miller, a top policy adviser and Trump speechwriter, who has been an architect of the president's restrictive immigration measures." Miller's wife, Katie Miller, who serves as communications director to Vice President Mike Pence, had the virus earlier this year. She had been in Salt Lake City with Pence where he is preparing to debate Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris, but she left as soon as she found out about her husband's diagnosis, officials said. She tested negative on Tuesday.
Trump on Monday made clear that he has little intention of abiding by best containment practices when he removed his mask before entering the White House after his discharge from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. Waiting aides were visible when he entered the Blue Room without a face covering.
Trump's attitude alarmed infectious disease experts. And it suggested his own illness had not caused him to rethink his often-cavalier attitude toward the disease, which has also infected the first lady and more than a dozen White House aides and associates.
Republican Sen. Susan Collins said Tuesday, "When I saw him on the balcony of the White House, taking off his mask, I couldn't help but think that he sent the wrong signal, given that he's infected with COVID-19 and that there are many people in his immediate circle who have the virus,."
Trump, for his part, falsely suggested that the virus was akin to the seasonal flu.
"Many people every year, sometimes over 100,000, and despite the Vaccine, die from the Flu," he tweeted. "Are we going to close down our Country? No, we have learned to live with it, just like we are learning to live with Covid, in most populations far less lethal!!!"
In fact, COVID-19 has already proven to be a more potent killer, particularly among older populations, than seasonal flu, and has shown indications of having long-term impacts on the health of younger people it infects. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that influenza has resulted in far fewer yearly deaths than Trump said — between 12,000 and 61,000 annually since 2010.
Trump was working out of makeshift office space on the ground floor of the White House residence, in close proximity to the White House Medical Unit's office suite, with only a few aides granted a face-to-face audience. The West Wing was largely vacant, as a number of Trump's aides were either sick or quarantining after exposure to people infected with the virus, or otherwise working remotely as a precaution.
First lady Melania Trump was isolating upstairs in the White House. On Tuesday, her office released a memo outlining extensive health and safety precautions that have been put in place in the executive residence, including adopting hospital-grade disinfection policies, encouraging "maximum teleworking" and installing additional sanitization and filtration systems. Residence staff in direct contact with the first family are tested daily and support staff are tested every 48 hours. And since the president and Mrs. Trump tested positive, staff have been wearing "full PPE."
Despite Trump's upbeat talk about the disease, his own treatment has been far from typical, as his doctors rushed him onto experimental antiviral drugs and prescribed an aggressive course of steroids that would be unavailable to the average patient. On Tuesday he was to receive his final dose of the antiviral drug remdesivir. It was not known whether he was still being administered the powerful steroid dexamethasone, which was prescribed Saturday after he suffered a second drop in his blood oxygen levels in as many days.
Dr. Conley said Monday that because of Trump's unusual level of treatment so early after discovery of his illness he was in "uncharted territory," adding that Trump would not be fully "out of the woods" for another week.
The coronavirus can be unpredictable, and Conley has noted it can become more dangerous as the body responds. Days seven through ten can be "the most critical in determining the likely course of this illness," he said over the weekend.
There were also lingering questions about potential long-term effects to the president — and even when he first came down with the virus. Conley has repeatedly declined to share results of medical scans of Trump's lungs, saying he was not at liberty to discuss the information because Trump did not waive doctor-patient confidentiality on the subject.