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Trump returns to Oval Office as aides refuse to say when he last tested negative for covid-19

But White House aides and the president’s physician continue to say they will not release information key to determining whom Trump may have exposed.

“I don’t know when he last tested negative,” White House spokesman Brian Morgenstern told reporters Wednesday shortly before Trump returned to the Oval Office for the first time since being released from the hospital on Monday. “We’re not asking to go back through a bunch of records and look backwards.”

White House officials had previously claimed that Trump was tested daily for the coronavirus. On Wednesday, Morgenstern and other aides said Trump has been tested “regularly,” reverting to vague language in response to repeated and direct questions. Speaking on Fox News on Wednesday, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows declined to say when Trump last tested negative, citing privacy.

Two officials familiar with the situation said Trump has not been tested daily in recent months. Only rarely has Trump been tested on a machine other than the one produced by Abbott Laboratories, which provides rapid results, said the officials, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal protocols. The rapid tests are not always accurate.

Morgenstern criticized reporters for pointing out the White House’s refusal to release the president’s testing information, saying they should instead be asking about recently released documents aimed at undercutting the investigation into potential ties between Trump’s 2016 campaign and Russia.

Convincing journalists to focus on things other than the coronavirus crisis and its debilitating impact on the White House has been a key goal for Trump and his aides in recent days, culminating Wednesday with the president’s unexpected departure from isolation and return to the Oval Office.

The potentially dangerous move by a still-infectious and recovering covid-19 patient was Trump’s latest attempt to send a message four weeks before the election that Americans should not be afraid of a disease that hospitalized him and infected much of the West Wing.

Trump sought to depict a presidency that has returned to normal, saying on Twitter that he had “recovered” from the virus.

“Hi, perhaps you recognize me. It’s your favorite president, and I’m standing in front of the Oval Office at the White House,” Trump said in a recorded video released on Twitter late Wednesday.

The president was recorded while standing in the Rose Garden without a mask. He focused mostly on erroneously pitching therapeutics as a “cure” rather than emphasizing good public health practices like mask-wearing and social distancing, continuing a pattern that has frustrated scientists for months.

“I want everybody to be given the same treatment as your president, because I feel great,” Trump said, pledging to make sure that all Americans receive the same experimental antibody cocktail that was used to treat him, free. “I think this was a blessing from God that I caught it. This was a blessing in disguise.”

Trump’s return capped a turbulent day in which he was supposed to be recuperating from the highly contagious virus in isolation.

Instead, Trump spent much of the day posting all-caps tweets against his perceived enemies, railing against investigations into his conduct and causing bipartisan confusion about where he stands on a stimulus package to help millions of Americans impacted by the pandemic. Aides say he was anxious to get back behind the Resolute Desk.

Even as White House officials sought to portray Trump as healthy and hard at work on Wednesday, they continued to evade key questions about his condition and his conduct.

White House physician Sean Conley released a memo Wednesday describing Trump’s vital signs as “stable and in normal range” and announcing that lab work conducted Monday had detected antibodies for covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

“The president this morning says ‘I feel great!’ ” read the memo, which provided only limited information about Trump’s condition. The memo offered no details about the antibodies detected, and White House officials did not answer questions about whether they resulted from the experimental treatment Trump received or were developed naturally.

Still, doctors cleared Trump to return to the Oval Office, and White House staff spent much of Tuesday preparing for his arrival and ensuring that it would not expose others to the virus, according to an official.

The West Wing remains largely empty, with most aides working from home.

“Every precaution necessary is being taken to protect not only the president and the first family, but every staff member working on the complex to support the federal government’s operations consistent with CDC guidelines and best practices,” said White House spokesman Judd Deere. “The White House remains fully operational, and the work of the American people is getting done.”

Some staff members recommended against Trump returning so soon to the West Wing, where there are normally hundreds of people working, according to someone familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private talks.

Trump was adamant on working from the Oval Office and has been pushing to make it happen for days, officials said. Trump told aides he thought the country needed to see its president working; Meadows and social media director Dan Scavino both spent time with the president in the West Wing on Wednesday, officials said.

The Oval Office will be sanitized daily after Trump leaves, following the standard practice in the rest of the West Wing.

The White House’s broader practices are being scrutinized after Trump and more than 25 other people tested positive for the virus in the past week after spending time at the White House. The continually growing list includes U.S. senators, Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien, first lady Melania Trump, several journalists and multiple West Wing officials.

Despite the White House outbreak, Trump has sought to downplay the virus in recent days, telling Americans not to allow the pandemic to “dominate your lives.”

The president’s decision to scuttle negotiations over a stimulus package continued to reverberate Wednesday, as lawmakers and investors tried to get a sense of what was going on.

Hours after abruptly announcing that he had called off negotiations with Congress for a massive economic relief bill — causing the stock market to plunge Tuesday — Trump took to Twitter again to call for a piecemeal approach to such a deal.

The late-night change of heart frustrated several Republicans and cast a cloud of uncertainty over whether Americans could expect an injection of stimulus in the form of $1,200 checks, small-business assistance, aid for airlines and unemployment payments ahead of the election.

Confusion over Trump’s tweets, which seemed to contradict each other, unnerved some Republicans on Capitol Hill, even as the stock market recouped its losses and surged higher Wednesday.

“Trump did all the bad market tweets when the market was open, and the good market tweets when the market was closed,” said one Republican official. “Did he not realize what he was about to do? Did he not care?”

One administration official said the White House legislative affairs team was not involved in the discussions about ending the stimulus talks. Meadows has cut the office out of the talks and is keeping everything close to the vest, officials said.

Some moderate Republicans are livid at the White House, believing Trump’s tweet calling off talks handed a political victory to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), according to several Capitol Hill and administration officials.

Pelosi has already rejected calls for a piecemeal approach to stimulus legislation, and Meadows has told Trump he believes the Democrats in Congress are stringing him along rather than negotiating in good faith. Pelosi said Wednesday that she was concerned Trump may be behaving irrationally because of drugs he has been prescribed to treat covid-19.

Before posting his video to Twitter on Wednesday, Trump had stayed largely out of sight for two days, instead communicating with the public through a torrent of social media posts on a number of topics.

He retweeted dozens of messages alleging without evidence that his predecessor and the FBI were involved in a logic-defying spying and framing campaign to harm his electoral chances four years ago.

In one all-caps and evidence-free post, Trump claimed that former vice president Biden should not be allowed to run for president because he led a “TREASONOUS PLOT” and “GOT CAUGHT!”

The conspiratorial claims by Trump and several of his allies did not address the fact that the FBI did not publicly announce its investigation into Trump during the 2016 election, even as it took significant steps to publicly discuss its investigation into his rival, Hillary Clinton.

Still, Trump’s renewed focus on the alleged scandal is part of an effort to change the topic from the coronavirus, which has dominated global headlines in recent days as growing numbers of people have tested positive for the virus after spending time at the White House, officials said.

After reporters asked Morgenstern several questions about Trump’s health Wednesday, he sought to change the subject, asking if reporters were covering the Russia probe.

“It was a very important story so I’d recommend everybody look into it and cover that,” he said.

But several Republican officials are growing increasingly worried that Trump is taking the wrong approach to an election that a growing number of polls show him losing. Trump’s electoral standing has become only more precarious in recent days as he has downplayed the deadly virus that sent him to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

“There’s a lot of agreement that the last week has not been good,” said one GOP official. “It’s been communicated to the president that he’s harming his chances for reelection.”

There is a grim realization, among several aides, that Trump is unlikely to change and is likely to lose the election.

“There are so many of us who want him to go out there and talk about his record. The economy, criminal justice, defeating ISIS,” an administration official said. “We aren’t talking about that. He’s tweeting in all caps about Russia, and every segment of the news is about the virus.”

Dan Eberhart, a Republican donor, said the turbulence of the past week has been more reminiscent of the earliest days of an administration, “not one almost two hundred weeks in.”

Still, he said he was sympathetic to White House officials dealing with so much drama at once.

“Given the circumstances, they are doing pretty good,” he said. “Things are chaotic, but that’s to be expected.”

Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.

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