WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump on Saturday made his first public appearance since returning to the White House after being treated for the coronavirus. The White House has refused to declare that he is no longer contagious, and the gathering of hundreds of people on the South Lawn went ahead despite the guidance of public health officials.
Trump delivered an address on his support for law enforcement from the Blue Room balcony to a friendly crowd. The president wore a mask as he walked out for the speech but took it off to make his remarks. He received an enthusiastic response from his supporters.
“I’m feeling great,” said Trump, who said he was thankful for their good wishes and prayers as he recovered.
Trump is also priming for a Florida rally on Monday and campaign events in Iowa and Pennsylvania later in the week.
The president addressed the large crowd even as the White House refuses to declare that he is no longer contagious and against the guidance of public health officials.
The White House insisted the event on the South Lawn was an official event and not a campaign rally. But Trump used the address to make broadsides against the Democratic ticket of former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris.
“I think we’re gonna swamp them by so much," he said.
Trump appeared healthy, though perhaps a little hoarse, during the 18-minute speech that was intended to send the message that he's back and ready to resume his battle for reelection.
Before the speech, White House officials said they had no information to release on whether the president was tested for COVID-19, meaning he made his first public appearance without the White House verifying that he's no longer contagious.
Security was stepped up around the White House before the event, which was called a “peaceful protest for law & order.” Police and the Secret Service closed surrounding streets to vehicles and shut down Lafayette Square, the park near the White House that has long been a gathering place for public protest.
Related: Trump wears mask for first time in public
As questions linger about his health — and Democratic opponent Joe Biden steps up his own campaigning — Trump also planned to leave the Washington area on Monday for the first time since he was hospitalized for a campaign rally in Sanford, Florida. He is also scheduled to hold campaign events in Iowa and Pennsylvania next week and is increasing his radio and TV appearances with conservative interviewers, hoping to make up for lost time with just over three weeks until Election Day and millions already voting.
Biden's campaign said he again tested negative on Saturday for COVID-19. Biden was potentially exposed to the coronavirus during his Sept. 29 debate with Trump, who announced his positive diagnosis barely 48 hours after the debate.
The president has not been seen in public — other than in White House-produced videos — since his return five days ago from the military hospital where he received experimental treatments for the coronavirus.
Most in the crowd that gathered for his speech on supporting law enforcement wore masks, but there was little social distancing.
Saturday's speech comes two weeks after his Rose Garden event that has been labeled a “superspreader” for the virus. More than two dozen people linked to the White House have contracted COVID-19 since the president's Sept. 26 event announcing Judge Amy Coney Barrett as his nominee to the Supreme Court.
On Saturday, all attendees are required to bring masks or will be provided with them, and also will be given temperature checks and asked to fill out a brief questionnaire. Attendees will be strongly encouraged to follow CDC guidelines, which include mask-wearing and social distancing.
Trump's Monday event in Sanford, Florida, what he's described as a “BIG RALLY," was originally scheduled to be held on Oct. 2, the day after he tested positive. Ahead of his Saturday event, Trump used Twitter to share news articles about problems with mail-in ballots in New Jersey, Ohio and Texas. Trump has repeatedly made unsubstantiated claims that universal mail-in voting is beset by widespread fraud.
Trump's return to public activity came as Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious-disease expert, cautioned the White House again to avoid large-scale gatherings of people without masks.
He said of the Barrett event in an interview with The Associated Press, “I was not surprised to see a superspreader event given the circumstances." That means “crowded, congregate setting, not wearing masks. It is not surprising to see an outbreak," he said.
District of Columbia virus restrictions prohibit outdoor gatherings larger than 50 people, although that rule has not been strictly enforced. Masks are mandatory outdoors for most people, but the regulations don’t apply on federal land, and the Trump White House has openly flouted them for months.
Confined to the White House as he recovers, Trump spent sizeable chunks of the past few days making the rounds of friendly conservative media, calling in to Fox News host Sean Hannity on Thursday night and spending two hours live on air with radio host Rush Limbaugh on Friday in what his campaign billed as a “radio rally.”
Holding court on his reelection battle, his fight against the coronavirus and revived negotiations with Democrats to pass an economic stimulus bill, Trump made a direct appeal to his base of loyal supporters, whom he needs to turn out to the polls in droves.
In a Friday night interview on Fox's Tucker Carlson's show, Trump was asked if he has been retested for COVID-19. “I have been retested, and I haven’t even found out numbers or anything yet. But I've been retested, and I know I’m at either the bottom of the scale or free," he said.
White House officials, however, have declined to answer when Trump last tested negative for the virus or release detailed information about lung scans taken while Trump was hospitalized.
Aides to the president insist that it is safe for Trump to return to his regular activities, including campaigning. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines call for the infected to wait at least 10 days from the onset of symptoms, Fauci noted in the AP interview. That onset for Trump was Oct. 1, according to his doctors.
The president's White House physician, Navy Cmdr. Sean Conley, added that Trump was showing no evidence of his illness progressing or adverse reactions to the aggressive course of therapy he has received.
While reports of reinfection in COVID-19 victims are rare, the CDC recommends that even people who recover from the disease continue to wear masks, stay distanced and follow other precautions. It was unclear if Trump, who has refused mask wearing in most settings, would abide by that guidance as he resumes his campaign.