WASHINGTON ― Amid a coronavirus pandemic and a political campaign in which he is questioning the health of his leading opponent, President Donald Trump and the White House continue to withhold details of his hasty hospital visit four months ago.
The White House at the time claimed that the president was getting a head start on his annual physical and that he would undergo the remainder of it early this year. Yet Trump himself has now said his physical might not happen until June.
“I’m going probably over the next 90 days. I’m so busy, I can’t do it,” he told reporters last week on the White House South Lawn before boarding a helicopter to fly to a campaign rally.
The White House has not responded to repeated HuffPost queries about his November visit to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, which began with a sudden, unannounced drive through Saturday afternoon traffic. The White House has released almost no information about the excursion, save for the president’s cholesterol count.
The evening of Nov. 16, hours after the trip and after putting out a release claiming that Trump was merely taking advantage of a “free weekend” to get part of his physical done, White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham told Fox News: “He’s got more energy than anybody in the White House. That man works from 6 a.m. until, you know, very, very late at night. He’s doing just fine.”
Two days later, the White House released a letter from Trump’s doctor, Sean Conley, stating that the visit was part of a “routine, planned interim checkup” and that Trump afterward visited hospital staff and the family of a soldier undergoing surgery.
“Despite some of the speculation, the president has not had any chest pain, nor was he evaluated or treated for any urgent or acute issues,” Conley wrote. “Specifically, he did not undergo any specialized cardiac or neurological evaluations.”
The following day, Trump brought up the subject himself, unprompted, during the self-laudatory remarks with which he publicly opens Cabinet meetings. He called the news media “sick” for reporting on the unusual nature of the trip.
“We have a very corrupt media,” he said, claiming that first lady Melania Trump asked him how he was feeling upon his return to the White House. “My wife said, ‘Darling, are you OK?’ What’s wrong? ‘Oh, they’re reporting you may have had a heart attack,’” Trump said. “I went ― did a very routine ― just a piece of it, the rest of it takes place in January ― did a very routine physical.”
In reality, though, nothing about that afternoon’s trip was “routine.”
For starters, it was not published on the president’s schedule. Previous trips to Walter Reed had been listed on the schedule that’s made public daily.
Those trips also used the Marine One helicopter, while the Nov. 16 trip was done by motorcade. The Secret Service prefers helicopter trips to driving whenever possible because they are easier to secure, and Walter Reed is a particularly easy helicopter destination because it has its own helipad inside the perimeter.
Further, when motorcades are used, the Secret Service typically arranges with local law enforcement to shut down the roads to traffic along the route to isolate the president’s limousine as much as possible.
That Saturday afternoon, not only was there no helicopter but the roads were never shut down as Trump’s motorcade crossed the Potomac River and then headed north on the George Washington Parkway in Virginia to catch Interstate 495 into Bethesda, Maryland.
“It struck me as very odd,” said one former White House official familiar with the transportation and medical care protocols available to the president. “It suggests to me that it all did come together very quickly.”
The helicopters used by the president are based in Quantico, Virginia, about 15 minutes from the White House by air, but arranging a flight on a weekend takes a few hours to round up the on-call crews and to fuel and check the aircraft. Arranging for roads to be closed off along a motorcade route also takes some time. When that is not available, the Secret Service shifts to a smaller motorcade that uses unmarked black SUVs instead of the distinctive presidential limos and fewer total vehicles, traveling without lights and sirens except when crossing a controlled intersection that would otherwise leave part of the motorcade behind a red light.
That is what took place on Nov. 16. What is typically a five-minute helicopter ride to cover the eight miles became a 32-minute, 20-mile motorcade ride because of “some traffic jams,” according to a report filed by one of the journalists on duty who rode in the motorcade.
The peculiarity of Trump’s method of travel that day was matched by his attire. The president normally wears a suit and tie for most events, including visits to Walter Reed, but that Saturday he wore an open-collared shirt and jacket as he climbed into the SUV, carrying a thick packet of papers under one arm.
The former White House official said speculation about Trump suffering a serious medical issue was likely wrong, as then they would have taken him just a few blocks to George Washington University Hospital, which is equipped with a Level 1 trauma center. What’s more, routine tests could have been done at the White House, which has its own suite of medical equipment, including an X-ray machine and an ultrasound.
“It is safer and less operationally complex to bring providers to the White House,” the former official said, adding that the most likely cause for the sudden trip was access to tests or medical equipment not available in the building ― an MRI machine, for example.
The American public has never had as clear an understanding of Trump’s health as it has had of other presidents’ health in the modern era. During the 2016 campaign, Trump refused to release a detailed medical history, which previous candidates from both parties had done. Instead, he offered a brief letter from his personal doctor, which declared Trump’s health to be “astonishingly excellent.”
“If elected, Mr. Trump, I can state unequivocally, will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency,” Dr. Harold Bornstein wrote.
Bornstein later told NBC News that White House aides had come to his office in February 2017 and taken all of Trump’s medical records, and he told CNN that Trump had dictated the original letter. (Asked by HuffPost this week if he would discuss that incident, Bornstein replied: “No!”)
In January 2018, Trump had his first physical as president at Walter Reed. That was followed by a press briefing from then-White House physician Ronny Jackson, who declared the president to be in excellent health despite a poor diet. “He has incredibly good genes, and it’s just the way God made him,” Jackson said.
A year later, after his second physical, there was no briefing ― only a letter from the new physician, Conley, who wrote that Trump was in “very good health overall” but noted that he had gained four pounds while lowering his cholesterol thanks to a higher dosage of medication.
In lieu of actual, detailed medical reports ― such as those provided annually by his predecessors George W. Bush and Barack Obama ― Trump’s White House and his allies instead make broad claims about how healthy Trump is.
“President Trump remains in excellent health,” Grisham said on Monday in a statement explaining why he had not received a test for the coronavirus.
“The president is healthy as a horse,” Matt Schlapp, lobbyist and head of the American Conservative Union, told Fox News on Wednesday.
Trump, meanwhile, has been questioning the health of likely Democratic nominee Joe Biden, including his mental acumen. “There’s something going on there,” Trump said during a recent Fox News appearance.
The president himself, however, has a rich history of verbal and memory slips. Among them: He has conflated the birthplace of his father with that of his grandfather, said “oranges” when he meant “origins,” called Apple’s CEO “Tim Apple” instead of “Tim Cook,” and, more recently, claimed his border wall is being paid for by Mexico using “redemption money.”