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White House staff members walk from the residence toward the West Wing on Tuesday, the day after US President Donald Trump returned after being hospitalised with Covid-19. Multiple workers at the White House have also tested positive. Photo: Reuters

Donald Trump tries to play down severity of coronavirus as Pentagon leaders go into quarantine

  • The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Army chief of staff and several other military leaders are quarantining after being exposed to the virus
  • Top White House aide Stephen Miller also positive for Covid-19 after testing negative previously

US President Donald Trump appeared to be using his bout with Covid-19 to try to gain an advantage over his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, even as the number of infections around him continued to rise and some of America’s top military leaders went into quarantine.

General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; General James McConville, the Army chief of staff; and several other Pentagon leaders are quarantining after being exposed to the coronavirus, Defence Department spokesman Jonathan Hoffman announced on Tuesday, after a statement from the US Coast Guard that Admiral Charles Ray, the division’s second in command, tested positive for Covid-19.

Senior adviser Stephen Miller was the latest member of the president’s inner circle to test positive on Tuesday, despite previously testing negative.

Coronavirus in the White House: who in Donald Trump’s orbit tested positive

Two more White House staffers were also infected, including a military aide and one of Trump’s valets, an active member of the US military who travelled with the president last week, according to Bloomberg News. The latest cases bring the number of cases among individuals who either work at the White House or have recently attended events there, including the president and first lady Melania Trump, to 19.

Trump, who received an aggressive course of experimental treatments while hospitalised and will get round-the-clock care at the White House, has consistently played down the disease even though the US has the world’s highest coronavirus death toll.

Political analysts said that with only four weeks left until the ­November 3 election, the positive diagnosis and the personality of the candidate left the Trump ­campaign with little choice but to double down on denying the gravity of the virus as the president faced a backlash for telling Americans not to fear a contagion that has killed more than 1 million people worldwide.

Even if Trump’s position on the health crisis runs counter to the approach many Americans want to see, he still has several points of strength.

Trump “has three tools still at his disposal — unyielding Republican loyalty, the Electoral College and the power of the presidency,” Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton University, said in an interview with Associated Press on Monday. “His ability to tie up voting and spread disinformation remains formidable.”

The image of Trump removing his face mask on the South Portico of the White House after his return from the Walter Reed medical centre, and then saluting and waving, coincided with an online video of him saying: “Don’t let it dominate you. Don’t be afraid of it.”

The world’s hottest spy target: Trump’s health

Trump underscored this strategy with a Twitter post comparing Covid-19, which has killed more than 210,000 Americans, to the ­seasonal flu. Twitter slapped a warning on the post, saying that it spread “misleading and potentially harmful information related to Covid-19”.

Facebook also removed a post by Trump with a similar message comparing the illness with seasonal influenza.

“Flu season is coming up! Many people every year, sometimes over 100,000, and despite the Vaccine, die from the Flu,” Trump wrote.

“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!!!”

Influenza was estimated by the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention to have killed 22,000 Americans in the 2019-2020 season and 34,200 in the ­previous year.

Some have suggested that the steroid Trump is taking as part of his treatment might be interfering with his cognitive ability.

Dr Peter Bach, an epidemiologist who is director of Memorial Sloan Kettering’s Centre for Health Policy and Outcomes, said in a Twitter post: “It is worth noting that when we give high dose corticosteroids like dexamethasone, we warn patients to not be misled about [where] they are in recovery.”

Bach attached a standard warning on the medication’s label that says “derangements may appear when corticosteroids are taken” and “existing emotional instability or psychotic tendencies may be aggravated by corticosteroids”.

Biden posted on Twitter a split-screen video showing him putting a mask on and the footage of Trump removing his at the White House.

Trump also announced via Twitter that he was “looking forward” to the second of three debates with Biden, scheduled to take place in Miami on October 15, which would be 14 days after the president announced his Covid-19 diagnosis. Conley and other White House officials have refused to give a date for Trump’s last negative test result.

In polls taken since Trump’s ­diagnosis and the first debate with Biden on September 29, which saw the president repeatedly talk over his Democratic rival and the moderator, Trump’s ­fortunes have worsened.

Among likely voters, 57 per cent said they supported Biden and 41 per cent Trump, according to a CNN poll released on Tuesday, the largest margin seen in a major ­survey so far.


Trump returns to the White House after only three days in hospital for Covid-19 treatment

Trump returns to the White House after only three days in hospital for Covid-19 treatment

But given the vagaries of the Electoral College, which decides the winner, the race will still come down to a handful of swing states that are less clear because of Biden’s more narrow lead.

Meanwhile, a survey released on Tuesday by Pew Research found that an unfavourable view of China had hit historic highs in many developed countries, but when it came to handling the pandemic, the US ranked even lower.

In a survey of 14 countries, a median of 61 per cent of respondents said China had done a bad job of handling the pandemic, topped only by the 84 per cent who said the US had mismanaged it.

Trump’s Covid-19 antibody treatment has a Singaporean connection

This compared with the 35 per cent of respondents in European nations, Canada, the US, South Korea and Japan who said a poor job had been done by the World Health Organization – the United Nations agency Trump has blamed along with China for the spread of the virus in the US.

Confidence in President Xi ­Jinping to do the right thing in world affairs also hit new lows, with at least 70 per cent of the respondents across all the countries expressing “no confidence” in the Chinese leader, up 17 percentage points, led by Japan with 84 per cent and South Korea with 83 per cent.

However, Trump’s ratings were also poor.

“In Germany, 78 per cent say they have no confidence in Xi – but 89 per cent say the same of Trump,” the Pew report said.