5 worrying red flags from Trump's doctor

There's still a lot the public doesn't know about the president's condition

Sean Conley.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock)

President Trump's medical team offered an update on the commander-in-chief's condition on Monday ahead of his pending release from the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. But what wasn't said by Dr. Sean P. Conley, the White House physician, was at times more revealing than what was.

Here are some of the biggest red flags from the press conference.

1. "I don't want to go backwards."

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Putting together a timeline of Trump's illness is not only important for tracing his contacts, but for understanding where he's at in the progression of the disease. But Conley strangely refused to answer reporters' questions on Monday about when the president received his last negative test, replying: "I don't want to go backwards."

Absent another explanation, the dodge suggests there is information the White House doesn't want made public about when Trump first knew he was sick. Trump held a rally and fundraiser in Minnesota on Wednesday and a fundraiser in New Jersey on Thursday, and had he been attempting to cover up his illness during that time, he could have irresponsibly exposed unknowing supporters and donors to the contagious disease.

2. "If we can get through to Monday with him remaining the same — or improving, better yet — then we will all take that final deep sigh of relief."

Next Monday is still seven days away. That is a long time! And if the president's own physician won't breathe a "deep sigh of relief" until a full week from today, it raises a serious question: Why is Trump being released now, if he still isn't "out of the woods?"

The unspoken fear appears to be that Trump could take a downturn again after seemingly getting better on Sunday and Monday — a fairly common course for COVID-19. Michelle Gong, the director of critical-care research at Montefiore Medical Center, explained that COVID-19 patients often seem to be "doing OK, and then at around the five- to seven-day mark they start to get worse and then develop respiratory failure." The CDC has also reported that patients can have a "clinical deterioration during the second week of illness." While it's hard to draw an exact timeline because of the White House's cagey answers about when Trump first got sick, it seems there are still significant health hurdles for him to clear.

3. "There are HIPAA rules and regulations that restrict me in sharing certain things for his safety and his own health and reasons."

Asked for information about Trump's lung scans, Conley selectively cited HIPAA privacy regulations. Trump, however, could have lifted those protections and allowed Conley to fully inform the public about his condition — something he presumably would have done if his results were normal, CBS News' Kathryn Watson points out. As Jake Tapper said on CNN, "I've never heard a president's physician invoke HIPAA regulations. Never."

Refusing to answer a simple question about lung scans is cause for concern, especially since it could indicate an attempt to cover up that the president is suffering from more serious problems, like pneumonia. (Asked directly if Trump had pneumonia, Conley said he was "not at liberty to discuss" it).

4. "We send patients home with medications all the time."

Trump is being discharged while still on a list of pretty significant drugs, including dexomethosone, which CNN's Manu Raju explains is "a steroid with side effects given to some very sick COVID patients." Medical experts have already expressed alarm about the seriousness of treatments Trump is receiving — "they're throwing the kitchen sink at him," Dr. Thomas McGinn, a physician-in-chief at Northwell Health, previously told The New York Times — which raises further questions about why Trump would be released from hospital observation while on such heavy-duty medications and experimental treatments. The White House, of course, is equipped to handle a sick president, but there were reasons Trump went to the hospital in the first place; it's hard to see what's changed since Friday, when he was admitted.

Trump being on steroids has also raised questions about his condition on Monday, such as the possibility the medication is masking how sick he still is. The drugs can give a patient "false energy" and make them "behave and engage in behavior that is not what the doctor would like to see," The New York Times' Maggie Haberman explained.

5. "I'm not going to go into specifics."

Perhaps the biggest red flag of all was Conley's refusal to answer extremely basic questions about the president's health. The public still don't know if he does or does not have pneumonia, when his last negative test was, if he's had concerning lab results, or if there is damage to his lungs and how extensive it might be. We also don't have a full picture of what Conley means when he said the president had "several little temporary drops in his oxygen," because he repeatedly refused to go into specifics.

Trump is not a private citizen: he is the leader of the United States, and his health is a national security issue. He is also a 74-year-old man, overweight, and has a number of comorbidities that present challenges when fighting COVID-19. But until the White House is more forthcoming about his condition as he battles what sounds to be a serious case of the disease, Americans are left with no choice but to read between the lines.

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Jeva Lange

Jeva Lange was the executive editor at TheWeek.com. She formerly served as The Week's deputy editor and culture critic. She is also a contributor to Screen Slate, and her writing has appeared in The New York Daily News, The Awl, Vice, and Gothamist, among other publications. Jeva lives in New York City. Follow her on Twitter.