WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Sunday briefly left his hospital room at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where he is being treated for Covid-19, to drive past a group of supporters, a move medical experts and Democrats swiftly criticized as "insanity."
The president posted a video to his Twitter account around 5:15 p.m. announcing that he would "pay a little surprise to some of the great patriots that we have out on the street." A few minutes later, the presidential motorcade slowly drove by the perimeter of the hospital, where a crowd had been gathering since Friday night. Trump was seen through the window of an SUV waving and wearing what appeared to be a cloth mask, as opposed to a more protective N95 mask.
The president does not travel anywhere without Secret Service protection, and Sunday's drive was no exception. At least two other people can be seen in the car with Trump.
Download the NBC News app for breaking news about the president's health
First lady Melania Trump, who also has Covid-19, would not leave isolation in the White House residence to visit her husband at the hospital, a White House official said Saturday.
"She has Covid," the official said. "That would expose the agents who would drive her there and the medical staff who would walk her up to him."
Dr. James Phillips, an attending physician at Walter Reed, tweeted that the "Presidential SUV is not only bulletproof, but hermetically sealed against chemical attack," and that therefore the risk of Covid-19 transmission was "as high as it gets outside of medical procedures."
"Every single person in the vehicle during that completely unnecessary Presidential 'drive-by' just now has to be quarantined for 14 days. They might get sick. They may die. For political theater. Commanded by Trump to put their lives at risk for theater. This is insanity," he added.
Dr. Esther Choo, an emergency room physician and professor at Oregon Health and Science University, told MSNBC: "It makes me sick to see him in close quarters with others in that car."
Dr. Céline Gounder, an infectious disease expert and professor at New York University, accused Trump of "putting the health of others at risk."
Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., D-N.J., called the event "a goddamn disgrace" on Twitter.
"To bask in the adulation of a handful of his supporters, trump just endangered the lives of Secret Service agents and others in his entourage," he added.
Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., tweeted: "It is criminal negligence for @realDonaldTrump to recklessly expose others. Pray for the Secret Service."
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany defended the move in an interview with Fox News, saying Trump "wanted to thank his supporters" and "give confidence to the American people that their Commander in Chief can get through this." She did not respond to questions about safety concerns.
Jason Miller, a top adviser to the Trump campaign, insisted in an interview with CNN that Trump drove by in "a safe way," but he was unable to answer questions about what precautions were taken to keep the Secret Service agents safe.
"But we also know Secret Service takes great care of their agents, extra precaution. I'm not part of White House operations or the White House medical unit. So the exact logistics I can't speak to, but I know the Secret Service takes this very seriously," Miller said.
White House spokesman Judd Deere said that protocols were followed to protect the safety of others and that Trump's doctors cleared the decision.
"Appropriate precautions were taken in the execution of this movement to protect the President and all those supporting it, including PPE," Deere said, referring to personal protective equipment. "The movement was cleared by the medical team as safe to do."
When asked about the surprise motorcade, a Secret Service spokesperson said, "We don't comment on protective operations."
Trump's motorcade drive Sunday was the latest in a series of efforts by the president and his allies to provide the American public with a rosy picture of his coronavirus diagnosis, often obfuscating the facts about his illness and creating confusion about the state of his health.
Trump has posted videos and pictures of himself working in the presidential suite at Walter Reed. Asked at a news conference earlier Sunday why Trump is not wearing a mask in any of those images when someone else presumably was in the room capturing the moment, Dr. Sean Conley, a White House physician, said the president wore a mask when around the doctors.
"The president wears a mask any time he's around us, and we're all wearing our N95s, full PPE," Conley said, adding that when the time comes to move Trump out of the hospital and into the public, "we'll talk about him wearing a mask."