US President Donald Trump waved at supporters from a motorcade Sunday on a short drive outside the hospital where he was being treated for Covid-19.
The outing came minutes after the president had announced "a surprise" for fans, and it appeared designed to personally take back the narrative on his improving health after a weekend of confused and contradictory messaging from the White House and Trump's medical team.
Seen in a dark face mask and waving, the president rolled past delighted supporters before returning to the Walter Reed military hospital near Washington.
"We're going to pay a little surprise to some of the great patriots that we have out on the street," Trump had said in a video posted to Twitter moments earlier.
"I'm about to make a little surprise visit."
Trump, who has been repeatedly rebuked for flouting public health guidelines and spreading misinformation on the pandemic, added that he had "learned a lot about Covid" by "really going to school," as he has battled the virus.
"This is the real school. This isn't the 'let's read the books school,' and I get it, and I understand it, and it's a very interesting thing," he added.
But the decision to leave his hospital suite was immediately criticised by the medical community, who voiced bafflement that the president wasn't being kept isolated as he is treated for the highly contagious viral infection.
"That Presidential SUV is not only bulletproof, but hermetically sealed against chemical attack," said James Phillips, chief of disaster medicine at George Washington University.
"The risk of Covid-19 transmission inside is as high as it gets outside of medical procedures. The irresponsibility is astounding. My thoughts are with the Secret Service forced to play."
The episode came hours after a briefing by Trump's medical team, who said he had "continued to improve" and could be returned to the White House, which has all the necessary equipment and expertise to continue his treatment, as early as Monday.
"The president has continued to improve," said his White House physician, Sean Conley. "As with any illness, there are frequent ups and downs over the course."
The president was flown to Walter Reed with a high fever on Friday after a "rapid progression" of his illness, with his oxygen levels dropping worryingly low, Conley said.
Health experts have complained that the messaging from the administration – and particularly Trump's medical team – has caused widespread confusion.
Conley admitted Sunday that in a briefing a day earlier he'd kept from the public the fact that the president had been given extra oxygen, in a bid to reflect an "upbeat attitude."
Adding to the confusion, Conley gave a rosy account of Trump's progress Saturday only for White House chief of staff Mark Meadows to tell reporters immediately that Trump's condition had been "very concerning" and that he was "still not on a clear path to a full recovery."
And while the medical updates have come regularly, questions remain over the drugs Trump has been given and their implications, how bad his fever became, when he last tested negative and whether there is any lung damage.
"You don't start dexamethasone, Remdesivir and [give] an experimental antibody cocktail to the President in the setting of low oxygen 'dips' unless there's Covid Pneumonia," tweeted Vin Gupta, of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.
"What did his chest imaging show? The American people deserve basic information on their President."
With a tough election campaign against Democratic rival Joe Biden in its final month, Trump and his advisors have done their best to project a sense of continuity.
The president has resumed making calls and tweeting from hospital.
His deputy campaign manager Jason Miller told ABC Sunday he had spoken to Trump for a half-hour Saturday and that the president was "cracking jokes."
Compounding frustration over the medical messaging, controversy has been mounting over the possibility that Trump might have exposed numerous others to Covid-19 even after a close aide tested positive.
A timeline provided by his advisors and doctors suggested he met more than 30 donors on Thursday in Bedminster, New Jersey even after learning that Hope Hicks had Covid-19 -- and just hours before he announced his own positive test.
There were more than 200 people at the fundraiser and a contact-tracing operation underway in New Jersey is looking at potentially thousands of people who may have been exposed.
All this came in a week when a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll – taken in the two days after a bruising presidential debate with Biden but before news emerged of Trump's illness – gave Biden a significant a 53-39 percent lead among registered voters.
Trump was said to have turned off voters in part by mocking Biden's mask-wearing during their debate Tuesday, even as Trump family members in the audience violated rules requiring masks.
As well as Trump and Hicks, numerous White House insiders and at least three Republican senators have contracted Covid-19, along with First Lady Melania Trump, who has not experienced severe symptoms.
Public health experts have expressed alarm at the "White House cluster," which has been linked to the September 26 Rose Garden celebration of conservative judge Amy Coney Barrett's nomination to the Supreme Court.
by Brian Knowlton & Joshua Melvin, AFP