Our View: Dr. Sean Conley says he’d ‘rather not’ disclose specifics. Dr. Conley, the nation would rather know more than less.
This editorial, originally published Oct. 3, has been updated.
When it comes to the coronavirus pandemic, the Trump administration has hardly been transparent or truthful. On numerous occasions, top officials, and President Donald Trump himself, have withheld, underestimated, downplayed and outright lied.
But when actual scientists and medical professionals have been allowed to speak, they have generally been as accurate as possible. That ended Saturday when the president’s physician, Dr. Sean Conley, refused to provide meaningful disclosure on the president’s condition during a late morning briefing with reporters.
Conley delivered the reassuring and welcome news that the “president is doing very well” and doctors are “extremely happy” with his progress. But the doctor undercut his credibility by saying he’d “rather not” give information on such questions as Trump’s fever before admission and where and when the president contracted the virus. Conley was evasive when pressed about the use of supplemental oxygen.
The next 48 hours
Actually, Dr. Conley, the American people would rather that you do provide information. In fact, they insist on it. The health of the president is of urgent national and international security concern. All you have to do is tell the truth, without spin or evasion.
The opaqueness of the response was even more troubling when, minutes after Conley concluded his briefing, an administration official (later identified as White House chief of staff Mark Meadows) told pool reporters at the hospital that the president was actually in worse health than was indicated in the briefing, calling his vital signs over the previous 24 hours “very concerning” and saying the next 48 hours could be crucial.
At Sunday’s briefing, Conley, a Navy officer who is paid by the taxpayers but reports to the commander in chief, was modestly more forthcoming about Trump’s vital signs and medications. The doctor said “the president has continued to improve” and acknowledged that Trump had been running a high fever and been given supplemental oxygen at the White House on Friday.
Asked why he had ducked questions Saturday, he said he was trying to “reflect the upbeat attitude” of the medical team. At another point, in response to an inquiry about whether Trump is in a negative-pressure room, Conley replied that he was “not going to get into the specifics” of the president’s care.
Feeding anxiety and conspiracy theories
Really? Then why bother with these briefings? The point ought to be to deliver honest, factual information about the president’s condition and prognosis, not rosy scenarios. The public can handle the truth; a lack of transparency only feeds anxiety and conspiracy theories.
Sunday’s briefing left unanswered questions about how high the president’s fever had been, whether he had received more supplemental oxygen on Saturday, whether he has signs of pneumonia, the level of inflammation in his body and the date of his last negative COVID-19 test.
Sadly, the confusion and mixed messages underscored how Trump and his aides make scant distinction between the institution of government and the man who occupies its top office. This behavior is less like a modern president than it is Louis XIV, the 17th and 18th century king of France who blithely observed, “L’etat, c’est moi.” I am the state.
Reports on the president’s condition came as at least three Republican senators and several high-ranking Republican officials tested positive as well, testament to how the White House itself has become a place where COVID-19 has spread.
Not wearing masks
Of particular concern was an event held on Sept. 26 to announce the nomination to the Supreme Court of Judge Amy Coney Barrett. Few of the attendees wore masks, and many could be seen greeting each other with hugs and handshakes.
Numerous Trump invitees to Tuesday’s presidential debate in Cleveland also did not wear masks, ignoring rules established by the Cleveland Clinic.
In a year with so much turmoil already, news that the president and first lady Melania Trump had tested positive for COVID-19 was the latest shock. For many, this “October surprise” came with a kind of silent numbness. For others, it was a chance to condemn the president’s lackadaisical attitude toward masks and social distancing, or to make breathless predictions about the news’ impact on the election or the Supreme Court.
The best course for the public is to take a deep breath and join in wishing the president and first lady a speedy recovery. The best course for the White House is to level with the American people.
USA TODAY’s editorial opinions are decided by its Editorial Board, separate from the news staff. Most editorials are coupled with an opposing view a unique USA TODAY feature.