STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Let's work through a timeline of what we know about the president's illness. Sometime last week, the president felt unwell. Early Friday morning, the president said he had tested positive for coronavirus. Later Friday, his oxygen levels dropped, and concerned doctors administered oxygen. Amid that concern, a helicopter carried the president to the hospital. On Saturday, the president's doctor went on live TV and gave the world a fog of misleading information. Some of his statements obscured the facts we have just laid out. Dr. Sean Conley's sunny assessment even included a statement that the president is, quote, "slightly overweight." He's generally classified as obese.
Conley and other White House officials now say he made the statements to the country on TV because of the possible effect on the patient, a single TV viewer inside the hospital. For the moment, the president seems better. And in a highly unusual move on Sunday, the infected president climbed into an SUV and rode out to wave to supporters. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson is here to analyze all of this. Hey there, Mara.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.
INSKEEP: What is the medical team saying now?
LIASSON: Well, we last heard from the medical team yesterday. They said the president has continued to improve so much that he could be sent home to the White House today. That's different than going home for an ordinary person, of course. There's a full medical staff, 20 to 30 people, in the White House medical unit. But at the same time, we learned yesterday that the president's oxygen levels dropped twice - once on Friday, once on Saturday - and that he's now taking a cocktail of drugs that doctors say would be given to someone with a severe case of COVID. We also did hear from the president in a Twitter video last night. And he looked better, sounded more like himself, and here's some of what he said.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I learned a lot about COVID. I learned it by really going to school. This is the real school.
LIASSON: So that video was taken right before the president did that drive-by that you described to wave to supporters outside Walter Reed. That's something that has horrified some medical experts. They say that the SUV is pretty much hermetically sealed, and he was endangering the lives of the agents who had to ride in the SUV with him. One of them, Dr. James Phillips, who's an attending physician at Walter Reed, called it insanity.
INSKEEP: Well, in what ways has the story changed that the medical team in the White House has told?
LIASSON: Well, on Saturday, the White House physician Sean Conley laid out this timeline that started Trump's diagnosis and treatment earlier than known, but then later, he had to issue a statement walking that back. He also seemed to tie himself up into pretzels to avoid lying. At one point, Conley was asked, did the president's oxygen level drop below 90? He said, well, it was below 94, but it wasn't like they were in the low 80s or something. So...
LIASSON: ...I'm not sure what that means.
INSKEEP: Which leaves a lot of space here.
LIASSON: So - yeah, a lot of space there. But he did give a very positive impression of Trump's condition on Saturday, just moments later contradicted by an anonymous source whom the AP learned was chief of staff Mark Meadows. Later, Conley was asked about this, and here's what he said.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
SEAN CONLEY: I was trying to reflect the upbeat attitude that the team, the president, that his course of illness has had. I didn't want to give any information that might steer the course of illness in another direction. And in doing so, you know, it came off that we were trying to hide something, which wasn't necessarily true.
LIASSON: So it's what you were describing earlier, kind of an audience-of-one problem. This sounds like he was saying what he thought the president wanted him to say. You know, the White House has gone to great lengths to make sure the president does not appear enfeebled in any way, made sure that he went to Walter Reed while he could still walk to the helicopter. And the implicit message of that limo ride yesterday, the SUV ride, was that the president is fine.
INSKEEP: Mara, is it normal for presidents to be less than forthcoming about their health?
LIASSON: Well, many presidents have been less than forthcoming. FDR was rarely photographed in the wheelchair. JFK had a variety of health issues which weren't described accurately. But I don't think we've ever seen such an extreme version with as little transparency and as much confusion as this.
INSKEEP: Mara, thanks so much.
LIASSON: Thank you. You're welcome.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Mara Liasson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.