UPDATED 9:30AM 10/06/2020: This story has been updated to note Trump’s return to the White House from Walter Reed.

President Donald Trump faced a backlash on Tuesday for removing his mask when he returned to the White House and urged Americans not to fear the COVID-19 disease that has killed more than 214,000 people in the United States and put him in hospital.

Trump arrived at the White House on Monday in a made-for-television spectacle in which he descended from his Marine One helicopter wearing a white surgical mask, only to remove it as he posed, saluting and waving.

“Don’t let it dominate you. Don’t be afraid of it,” Trump said in a video after his return from the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center outside Washington, where he was admitted on Friday with COVID-19.

“I’m better, and maybe I’m immune—I don’t know,” he added, flanked by American flags and with the Washington Monument in the background. “Get out there. Be careful.”

A White House Staffer told Axios: 

“It’s insane that he would return to the White House and jeopardize his staff’s health when we are still learning of new cases among senior staff. This place is a cesspool.”

“He was so concerned with preventing embarrassing stories that he exposed thousands of his own staff and supporters to a deadly virus. He has kept us in the dark, and now our spouses and kids have to pay the price. It’s just selfish.”

On Monday morning, Trump again falsely compared COVID-19 to the flu.

“Are we going to close down our Country? No, we have learned to live with it, just like we are learning to live with Covid, in most populations far less lethal!!!”

In private conversations with journalist Bob Woodward in February, Trump acknowledged COVID-19 is far “more deadly than even your strenuous flus.”

“The President of the United States was likely the largest driver of the COVID-19 misinformation ‘infodemic,’” the authors of a new Cornell University study found.

Trump, who received experimental treatments, has repeatedly played down the disease, which has killed more than 1 million people worldwide. The United States has the world’s highest death toll from the pandemic.

Trump’s return to the White House comes as a growing number of prominent Republicans are testing positive for COVID-19, even as the GOP continues to mislead the public about the threat of the coronavirus pandemic and moves to strip healthcare access from millions of Americans. 

Monday was Trump’s fourth day hospitalized. Trump, who was recently revealed to have paid little to no money in taxes in the last 15 years, is receiving cutting-edge, taxpayer-funded medical treatment at Walter Reed Military Medical Center while also seeking to overturn the Affordable Care Act, which threatens to disrupt healthcare coverage for tens of millions of people. 

White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany, who has refused to disclose how many White House staffers have COVID-19, is the 18th Republican to test positive for the disease, one day after speaking to reporters without a mask on. At least three White House reporters have contracted COVID-19, and many more have reportedly been forced to quarantine.

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who helped Trump prepare for the first presidential debate, and pushed for states to reopen early despite admitting “there are going to be deaths,” has also been hospitalized with COVID-19. 

Over the weekend information emerged that Trump knowingly exposed attendees of a New Jersey fundraiser, where donors paid up to $250,000 a ticket to meet with the president.

A Sept. 26 White House reception for Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, where attendees did not wear masks and were captured on camera hugging and shaking hands, appears to be the ‘superspreader’ event behind the outbreak that has reached the highest echelons of the GOP. 

At least three Senate Republicans— Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Mike Lee of Utah, and Thom Tillis of North Carolina—have tested positive for COVID-19, which could dash Republican hopes of pushing through Barrett’s nomination before the Nov. 3 election. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has suspended Senate proceedings for two weeks, needs 51 votes to confirm Barrett’s nomination.

The Supreme Court could rule on any challenges to the results of the election, and on Nov. 10, the court will hear a GOP-backed challenge to the Affordable Care Act, which Barrett has previously opposed. If struck down, millions of Americans could lose their healthcare, on top of potential disruption of the coverage received by tens of millions through Medicaid expansion, according to the the nonpartisan Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. 

Johnson attended an in-person fundraiser in Wisconsin while awaiting his test result, instead of quarantining, which is what the CDC recommends. Despite portions of the state experiencing record COVID-19 cases, Johnson supports a GOP lawsuit to block Gov. Tony Evers mask mandate.

While the Senate is rushing through Barrett’s nomination, have refused to vote the HEROES Act which was first passed by the House in May, which contains billions in funding for increased COVID-19 testing, rent relief, unemployment insurance, and other programs aimed to assist some of the 7.4 million Americans who have been infected by the pandemic that killed more than 209,000. 

Trump tweeted Monday that he would be returning to the White House that evening. “Feeling really good! Don’t be afraid of Covid.” Trump received treatments most Americans don’t have access to. The normal quarantine period for anyone testing positive for the coronavirus is 14 days.

On Sunday, Trump left his hospital room to ride in a White House motorcade that drove him past supporters gathered outside the hospital. Dressed in a suit jacket, shirt but no tie, and a black mask, it marked Trump’s first in-person public appearance since Friday.

Critics and medical experts blasted Trump for the act, which potentially exposed the staff in his car to infection.

A Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Sunday showed Trump trailing Biden by 10 percentage points. About 65% of Americans said Trump would not have been infected had he taken the virus more seriously. 

Trump publicly called the coronavirus a “Democratic hoax,” but privately admitted to downplaying the dangers of the coronavirus pandemic despite having evidence to the contrary, according to interviews with noted investigative journalist Bob Woodward published last month.

Trump continued to hold large campaign rallies with thousands of people despite the death of his supporter Herman Cain, who contracted COVID-19 after attending a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in June. Public health officials say the event was “likely” the cause of cases spiking in the area afterwards.

Trump is under fire for his statement that he met with soldiers and first responders at the hospital, which potentially exposed even more people to the virus, as well as for leaving the hospital on Sunday.

“Every single person in the vehicle during that completely unnecessary presidential ‘drive-by’ just now has to be quarantined for 14 days,” James Phillips, who is also an assistant professor of emergency medicine at George Washington University’s medical school said on Twitter. “They might get sick. They may die. For political theater.”

Dr. Sean P. Conley, the White House physician, on Sunday acknowledged that Trump’s condition had been worse than previously admitted. Conley said Trump had run a high fever on Friday morning and he had been given supplemental oxygen after his blood oxygen levels had dropped.

Doctors not involved in Trump’s treatment said the president’s condition might be worse than Conley let on. As an overweight, elderly man, Trump is in a category that is more likely to develop severe complications or die from the disease.

Trump has repeatedly mocked his opponent Joe Biden for his mask use. Biden has tested negative for the disease several times since sharing a debate stage with Trump last Tuesday. He is due to resume in-person campaigning on Monday in Florida, where opinion polls show a tight race in a crucial battleground for the Nov. 3 election.

Experts say 60% of COVID-19 deaths could have been avoided if the federal government acted sooner.

Additional reporting contributed by Reuters.

Jaisal Noor

General Assignment Reporter

Jaisal is a host, producer, and reporter for TRNN. With his expertise in education policy and systemic inequity, he focuses on Baltimore, Maryland. He mainly grew up in the Baltimore area and studied modern history at the University of Maryland, College Park. Before joining TRNN, he contributed print, radio, and TV reports to Free Speech Radio NewsDemocracy Now! and The Indypendent.

Jaisal's mother has taught in the Baltimore City Public School system for the past 25 years.