Opinion | The American People Need the Truth

The American people deserve better than to be misled about the health of the president.

Several days into President Trump’s battle with Covid-19, even basic facts about his illness — when he was diagnosed, how high his fever climbed, what triggered his hospitalization — remain hard to come by. The White House is being evasive and secretive. That’s nothing new, nor is it unreasonable to withhold some sensitive information from the public.

But too often in the past few days, the administration has appeared to be actively misleading the American people. Administration insiders are expressing frustration that no one even among Mr. Trump’s own staff seems to know what is going on. Among the broader public, anxious speculation and wild conspiracy theories are multiplying. The unnerving impression is of a White House in chaos.

We wish the president — and everyone stricken with this horrible disease — a full and speedy recovery. Critical to the protection of the nation’s health, however, is an honest accounting of what’s going on.

Despite reassurances from the White House on Friday afternoon that Mr. Trump was experiencing only “mild symptoms,” he was transported to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center early that evening. The visit was pitched as a precautionary measure, but this requires an incredibly loose definition of “precautionary.”

The president, as later came to light, had a high fever on Friday and his blood oxygen levels dropped to the point that he was given supplemental oxygen. To get the situation under control, his medical team is hitting him with, among other measures, steroids and an experimental antibody treatment.

On Saturday, Mr. Trump’s doctors assembled outside of Walter Reed for a news briefing, overseen by the White House physician, Dr. Sean Conley. Far from providing clarity, the spectacle was surreal. Dr. Conley delivered a sunny assessment that made it sound as though the president had popped out for a weekend spa getaway. He dodged questions about testing, Mr. Trump’s symptoms and whether the president had ever received supplemental oxygen.

The briefing also created confusion about the progression of Mr. Trump’s illness. Dr. Conley suggested that the president’s disease had been diagnosed on Wednesday — a day earlier than originally thought, and before Mr. Trump attended a Thursday fund-raiser. Dr. Conley later issued a “timeline clarification,” saying he had misspoken.

Immediately after the briefing, Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, painted a far grimmer picture: “The president’s vitals over the last 24 hours were very concerning and the next 48 hours will be critical in terms of his care,” Mr. Meadows said. “We’re still not on a clear path to a full recovery.”

Mr. Trump was furious with the negative comments, according to media reports. He issued upbeat comments through Rudy Giuliani, his friend and lawyer. A couple of perky tweets popped up on his Twitter feed. Early Saturday evening, a video of Mr. Trump was posted on Twitter. Wearing a dress shirt and suit jacket, he sat at a table and delivered a four-minute message of reassurance. “I think I’ll be back soon,” he predicted, offering thanks for all the good wishes he had received, praising his medical care and even doing a little low-key campaigning.

At Sunday’s briefing, Dr. Conley provided a bit more detail but continued his evasive maneuvers. He danced around numerous inquiries about precisely how low the president’s blood-oxygen levels had dipped on Friday and then again on Saturday, and he claimed not to know whether a second round of supplemental oxygen had been administered since Friday. Dr. Conley said that the president’s oxygenation issues had prompted doctors to start him on a course of dexamethasone, a corticosteroid aimed at reducing inflammation. But he dodged questions about what scans of the president’s lungs showed, saying only that there were “expected findings.” It is unclear what Dr. Conley meant.

Dr. Conley did address a question about why he had been untruthful about the president’s condition on Saturday. “I was trying to reflect the upbeat attitude that the team, the president, his course of illness has had,” he said. “I didn’t want to give any information that might steer the course of illness in another direction, and in doing so, you know, it came off that we were trying to hide something, which wasn’t necessarily true.”

There is a long history of misleading the public about a president’s health. Grover Cleveland’s White House lied about his cancer. Woodrow Wilson’s lied about his stroke. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s team covered up his deteriorating medical condition, and John F. Kennedy hid his chronic health problems for his entire presidency.

Today, information is hard to contain, and misinformation is too easily spread. Yet at the root of all of the things we must to do fight coronavirus is honesty. Honesty about where those who test positive have been and who they’ve seen is the only way that contact tracing works. Honesty about the science — what works in fighting the disease and what doesn’t — is how we best treat it in the human body. Honesty about how we can try to protect ourselves and our communities is a key to stopping the spread.

Efforts by the administration to manipulate the public fuel distrust and frustration. Moreover, Mr. Trump is not suffering from an infirmity particular to him. He has contracted a virus that has already killed more than 209,000 Americans. His refusal from the start to be straight with the public about the severity of this disease has made it harder for the country to get the pandemic under control, and an untold number of lives have been lost as a result.

However sick the president may be, the truth cannot be more harmful than the thick fog of confusion the White House has created. The American people are entitled to the truth.

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