BETHESDA, Md. — Doctors, secret service agents, and others were appalled by President Donald Trump’s surprise motorcade outside Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Sunday.
The president appeared outside the hospital, where he is being treated for COVID-19, to wave to his supporters who had been gathered there since Friday night.
At least two other people accompanied Trump inside the SUV, raising concerns that the president put Secret Service agents at risk of contracting the virus.
“Every single person in the vehicle during that completely unnecessary Presidential ‘drive-by’ just now has to be quarantined for 14 days,” tweeted Dr. James P. Phillips, who is an attending physician at Walter Reed.
“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.
Phillips wrote in a subsequent Twitter post that the SUV is hermetically sealed to protect against a chemical attack, making the risk of coronavirus transmission “as high as it gets outside of medical procedures.”
Dr. Jonathan Reiner, professor of medicine and surgery at George Washington University, agreed, saying Trump put his Secret Service detail “at grave risk.”
“In the hospital when we go into close contact with a COVID patient we dress in full PPE: Gown, gloves, N95, eye protection, hat,” Reiner said. “This is the height of irresponsibility.”
Trump was seen through the glass wearing a cloth mask, not appearing to wear the more protective N95 version. The man in the passenger’s seat was wearing what appeared to be an N95 respirator mask, eye covering and a protective gown over his clothing. The SUV’s driver was harder to see, but he appeared to at least be wearing some form of PPE.
White House spokesman Judd Deere told The Washington Post that Trump’s trip “was cleared by the medical team as safe to do,” adding that precautions were taking, including using personal protective equipment, to protect Trump and those who were with him.
But protected or not, the event violated guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which says, “In general, transport and movement of a patient with suspected or confirmed SARS-CoV-2 infection outside of their room should be limited to medically essential purposes.”
On Saturday, a White House official said first lady Melania Trump, who also was diagnosed with COVID-19, would not leave the White House residence to visit the president at the hospital because doing so “would expose the agents who would drive her there and the medical staff who would walk her up to him."
Just before Trump’s surprise appearance outside the hospital, he posted a video on Twitter saying: "I learned a lot about COVID. I learned it by really going to school … and I get it, and I understand it, and it's a very interesting thing, and I'm going to be letting you know about it."
Dr. Craig Spencer, an emergency room doctor who survived Ebola and is now the director of global health in emergency medicine at Columbia University, found Trump’s video ironic.
“Moments after stating 'I learned a lot about COVID', the President takes a joyride in an enclosed space with presumably #COVID19 negative people, all while on experimental medications,” he tweeted.
The Secret Service said in a statement the agency "will continue to follow established protocols to ensure the safety of our employees."
"The Secret Service does not discuss our protectees or the specific means and methods regarding our protective missions," a spokesperson said, according to Buzzfeed News.
But The Washington Post spoke to current and former Secret Service agents who were aghast at the president’s trip. The newspaper reported that a growing number of agents had already been concerned about Trump’s seeming indifference to the health risks they face when traveling with him.
“He’s not even pretending to care now,” one agent said.
Some Democratic lawmakers also blasted Trump over the incident.
Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA), tweeted, "It is criminal negligence for @realDonaldTrump to recklessly expose others. Pray for the Secret Service."
Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. (D-NJ), called the president’s ride “a goddamn disgrace.”
"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 wrote on Twitter.
Meanwhile, some Americans noted that they cannot visit their loved ones in hospitals or never had a chance to say goodbye before they died of COVID-19.
The White House press pool also was upset about Trump’s unannounced trip outside the hospital.
In a statement, the White House Correspondents’ Association said: "It is outrageous for the president to have left the hospital — even briefly — amid a health crisis without a protective pool present to ensure that the American people know where their president is and how he is doing.
"Now more than ever, the American public deserves independent coverage of the president so they can be reliably informed about his health.”
Later Monday, President Trump tweeted in defense of the decision to leave Walter Reed hospital to greet supporters.