WASHINGTON (AFP, REUTERS) - President Donald Trump appeared maskless before hundreds of supporters on Saturday (Oct 10) for his first public event since contracting Covid-19, declaring from the White House balcony: "I am feeling great."
"I want you to know our nation is going to defeat this terrible China virus," Trump told the cheering crowd of hundreds below, most wearing masks but with very little social distancing at the outdoor event.
"It's going to disappear, it is disappearing," he said of the virus, which has killed more than 210,000 Americans and severely dented his chances of winning a second term on Nov 3.
Trump appeared back to his old self at the event, dubbed “a peaceful protest for law and order”, urging the crowd of largely black and Latino supporters to help get out the vote.
His appearance – amid continued questions over whether he is still contagious – is seen as a first step towards resuming full campaigning next week, with events planned in Florida, Pennsylvania, and Iowa, on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, respectively.
Speaking firmly and without hesitation, Trump delivered a shorter-than-usual campaign speech, hailing his record in fighting crime and boosting the US economy, while slamming Democrats as supporters cheered.
A flesh-coloured bandage was visible on his right hand.
Trump's physician, Dr Sean Conley, released a statement late Saturday stating that the president is no longer contagious.
"This evening I am happy to report that in addition to the President meeting CDC criteria for the safe discontinuation of isolation, this morning’s Covid PCR sample demonstrates, by currently recognised standards, he is no longer considered a transmission risk to others," Dr Conley said.
However, the White House has not released the results of Trump’s latest Covid-19 test and has declined to say when he last tested negative. A White House spokeswoman said on Friday that Trump would be tested for Covid-19 and would not go out in public if it was determined he could still spread the virus.
Earlier this week, Dr Conley, cleared Trump to resume public engagements.
It was the first public event Trump has held since he was released from a three-night stay in hospital on Monday, when some observers watching his return to the White House said he appeared at times to be short of breath.
The White House has released videos and Trump has called into television shows since then, but this was the public’s first chance to see the president live.
Trump delivered a wide-ranging speech that touched on scrapping former president Barack Obama’s healthcare reform law, popularly known as Obamacare, criminal justice reform, and the state of the economy.
But opinion polls increasingly show that as Election Day approaches, voters see Nov 3 as a chance to cast a vote on Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Trump and his administration have faced widespread criticism for their handling of the pandemic, as well as for a lax approach to mask-wearing and social distancing in the White House and – in recent days – confusing messages about how ill the president has been.
Democrats and some commentators criticised Saturday’s White House event for potentially exposing a new batch of supporters to the virus and for using a federal building as an election prop.
Asked about it in New Castle, Delaware, Biden said he hoped that Trump and his supporters were taking precautions.
“They should be socially distant and wearing masks,” he said.
“It’s the only responsible thing to do.”
Republican Tom McCullagh, who is running for a state senate seat in Illinois and flew to Washington for Trump’s event, said he was not worried about catching the virus.
“If the president felt it was safe enough for him to hold a rally, I trust his judgment,” McCullagh told Reuters.
McCullagh wore a mask and kept his distance from other participants, but said he and a friend did not have their temperatures taken before entering the White House grounds.
Sources familiar with planning for the event had said that all participants would be screened for possible Covid-19 symptoms and have their temperatures taken.