US election: Donald Trump returns to campaign trail but debate is cancelled

President Donald Trump on Saturday made his first public appearance after being hospitalised for the coronavirus, defying public health guidelines to speak to a crowd of hundreds even as the White House refused to declare that he was not contagious.

Saturday, 10th October 2020, 11:27 pm
President Donald Trump gives a thumbs up from the Blue Room Balcony of the White House to a crowd of supporters in Washington on Saturday. Picture: Alex Brandon/AP
President Donald Trump gives a thumbs up from the Blue Room Balcony of the White House to a crowd of supporters in Washington on Saturday. Picture: Alex Brandon/AP

Trump took off a mask moments after he emerged on the White House balcony to address the crowd on the lawn below, his first step back onto the public stage with just more than three weeks to go until election day.

He flouted, once more, the safety recommendations of his own government just days after acknowledging that he was on the brink of “bad things” from the virus and claiming that his bout with the illness brought him a better understanding of it.

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Five days after Trump returned from Walter Reed Medical Center, his health remained a mystery as White House officials refused to reveal if he had tested negative or if he was still at risk of spreading the virus.

His return was a brief one. With bandages visible on his hands, likely from an intravenous injection, Trump spoke for 18 minutes, far less than at his normal hour-plus rallies. He appeared healthy, if perhaps a little hoarse, as he delivered what was, for all intents and purposes, a short version of his campaign speech despite the executive mansion setting.

Though billed as an official event, Trump offered no policy proposals and instead delivered the usual attacks on Democrat Joe Biden while praising law enforcement to a crowd of several hundred, most of whom wore masks while few adhered to social distancing guidelines.

“I'm feeling great,” said Trump, who said he was thankful for their good wishes and prayers as he recovered. He then declared that the pandemic, which has killed more than 210,000 Americans, was “disappearing” even though he is still recovering from the virus.

In either an act of defiance or simply tempting fate, officials organised the crowd just steps from the Rose Garden, where exactly two weeks ago the president held another large gathering to formally announce his nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. That event is now being eyed as a possible Covid-19 superspreader as more than two dozen people in attendance have contracted the virus.

Democratic candidate Joe Biden spent the day speaking to plumbers in Pennsylvania. Picture: Carolyn Kaster/AP

Trump had hoped to hold campaign rallies this weekend but settled for the White House event. But even as his health remained unclear, he planned to ramp up his travel with a rally in Florida on Monday, followed by trips to Pennsylvania and Iowa on subsequent days. It was not clear if Trump posed a risk to those he would fly with on Air Force One or encounter at the rally sites.

Before the speech, White House officials said they had no information to release on whether the president was tested for Covid-19, meaning he made his first public appearance without the White House verifying that he's no longer contagious.

As questions linger about his health – and Democratic opponent Joe Biden steps up his own campaigning – Trump has more frequently called into radio and TV programmes to speak with conservative interviewers, hoping to make up for lost time with just over three weeks until election day and millions already voting.

Trump's return to public activity came as Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government's top infectious-disease expert, cautioned the White House again to avoid large-scale gatherings of people without masks.

He said of the Barrett event: “I was not surprised to see a superspreader event given the circumstances.” That means “crowded, congregate setting, not wearing masks. It is not surprising to see an outbreak,” he said.

Biden's campaign said he again tested negative on Saturday for Covid-19. He spent the day campaigning in a key battleground county of Pennsylvania, attacking Trump for “only pretending to care about the working-class voters” who helped flip the Rust Belt states into Republican hands four years ago.

“Anyone who actually does an honest day's work sees him and his promises for what they are,'' Biden told a masked, socially distanced crowd.

He lamented ``the most unequal recovery in American history'' since Covid-19 ground the economy to a halt in the spring.