Trump taken to hospital
US Secret Service agents stand at their posts on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington as the Marine One helicopter with US President Donald Trump onboard lifts off to depart the White House and fly to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. Image Credit: Reuters

Washington: President Donald Trump was given an experimental antibody treatment and hospitalised Friday after learning he had the coronavirus and experiencing what aides called coughing, congestion and fever, throwing the nation's leadership into uncertainty and destabilizing an already volatile election campaign. Trump skipped a telephone call with governors at the last minute and uncharacteristically stayed off Twitter nearly all day before being flown to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. Officials said he would remain in the hospital for several days and canceled his upcoming campaign events.

Biden campaign scrambles to adjust to Trump's hospitalisation

Joe Biden tested negative for the coronavirus and pressed on with in-person campaigning Friday as President Donald Trump's hospitalisation with the virus seismically altered the race and threw the government into upheaval. Biden flew Friday afternoon to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he delivered remarks about the economy and emphasized the dangers of the pandemic. In a preview of how the former vice president may discuss the developments in the days to come, he cast his opponent's positive test as a vivid illustration of the public health risks at play but offered Trump wishes for a speedy recovery.

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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California on Friday suggested that President Donald Trump's coronavirus diagnosis could help to break a stalemate over a stimulus package to counter the economic toll of the pandemic, even as she remained far from an agreement with the administration on the contours of a bipartisan compromise. "This kind of changes the dynamic, because here they see the reality of what we have been saying all along: This is a vicious virus," Pelosi said on MSNBC. She later urged airlines to delay furloughing tens of thousands of employees, vowing that the House would soon pass relief measures.

Trump's COVID news meets a landscape primed for mistrust

Was it a hoax? Was it a lie? Was the president sicker than he claimed - or not sick at all? (What does "mild" mean, and how is it different from "moderate"?) Was there any way this alarming news was an ultra-cynical con?

Waking up on Friday to the stunning development that the president of the United States had tested positive for COVID-19 after months of downplaying the virus, some Americans had a similar reaction: Maybe it's not true.

"I don't believe it," said Anthony Collier, a truck driver from Atlanta. "It's like he's trying to get sympathy."

There is no evidence, of course, to support the view that Trump and his wife, Melania, are anything but ill. As updates on the president's condition came in, followed by the news that he would be hospitalized, the chatter turned from skepticism that the president was sick to doubts that the White House was being forthright about his condition.

Across social media, in interviews, in conversations, the questions poured in all day from people who have heard so many contradictory things over the last four years - a warp-speed whiplash of conflicting realities - that they no longer know what is true.

"It's no surprise that no one believes him. We're in a state where nobody believes anything," said Armando Iannucci, the political satirist and director who created the TV show "Veep," among other things.

"The virus that he is spreading is the virus of casting doubt on any bit of factual information," Iannucci said. "Casting doubt on truth, casting doubt on the news. Just casting doubt, calling it a hoax, saying it doesn't exist until it does exist."

The situation was not helped by the fuzzy and incomplete statements emanating from the White House early Friday. Both Mark Meadows, Trump's chief of staff, and Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, refused to answer the question that has dogged every White House since the Nixon era: What did the president know, and when did he know it? When did he find out, for example, that Hope Hicks, the aide he has been in close contact with all week, had tested positive for the virus?

"I'm not going to get into an exact timeline," McEnany told Fox News.

As the stock market teetered, the country fretted, and the theories swirled, Dr. Scott Atlas, a top White House coronavirus adviser, declared bullishly on Fox that Trump would "make a complete and full and rapid recovery."

Speaking of a 74-year-old man whose age and weight make him especially vulnerable to COVID complications, and who recently has appeared to have trouble walking down a ramp and lifting a glass of water to his mouth, Atlas added that "he had never seen anyone with more energy and more vigor, at any age."

That remark caused the Fox anchor Chris Wallace, who moderated the chaotic presidential debate earlier this week, to break in with an unexpected caveat: pay no attention to the man in front of the camera.

"Folks," he said, his voice breaking with exasperation. "I'm going to say something, and I'm just trying to give you the truth. Dr Scott Atlas is not an epidemiologist, is not an infectious disease specialist. There are a number of top people on the president's coronavirus task force who have had grave concerns about Scott Atlas and his scientific bona fides."

While the White House and its political advisers might "try to talk this down" for political reasons, Wallace said, viewers should remember that the coronavirus is an unpredictable disease and that Atlas has no idea what will happen. "He can't know, because the president is in the earliest stages of this," Wallace said.

Indeed, several hours later, the White House announced that Trump would be taken to Walter Reed hospital.

In the immediate aftermath of the president's disclosure, even generally sober-minded officials became armchair conspiracy theorists.

Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va., said he didn't doubt the president's condition. Then he added: "I would not be stunned to learn this was a political stunt to redirect attention from the tax returns and white supremacy."

James Zogby, the president of the Arab-American Institute in Washington, found himself puzzled Friday by his own roller-coaster of emotions. Like many Democrats still shaken from the 2016 election, his mind went straight to questions about what political advantage Trump would gain from falling sick.

"In a normal situation we would say, 'Oh my goodness, the president is ill,'" he said. "What we're getting is more questions about whether it's true, whether he's gaming it and how he's gaming it. That is quite distressing."

For Trump supporters who have spent the last seven months belittling the seriousness of the virus, arguing that the country should open up and complaining about masks, Friday's news of the positive diagnosis was quickly followed by a new feeling: outrage that anyone would question the president's word.

"I think people take him at face value," said former Rep. Sean Duffy of Wisconsin, who was one of Trump's warm-up speakers at his rally last month in Mosinee, Wisconsin. "Whatever you want to say about the president, he's a pretty open and forthright guy."

Juliana Bergeron, a Republican National Committee member from New Hampshire, added: "I would think everybody would believe it. He tweeted it out himself, right?"