US President Donald Trump turned his first campaign rally since contracting Covid-19 into an emphatic defence of his handling of the pandemic that has killed 215,000 Americans, joking he felt healthy enough to plunge into the crowd and give voters “a big fat kiss”.
There was no social distancing and mask-wearing was inconsistent among the thousands who attended Mr Trump’s return to Florida.
Defiant as ever about the coronavirus, the 74-year-old held forth for an hour, trying to revive his struggling campaign with just weeks left before Election Day.
Though he was admitted to hospital battling the virus only a week ago, Mr Trump’s message on Covid-19 was unaltered since his diagnosis: a dubious assessment that the pandemic was almost a thing of the past. Hundreds of people in the US continue to die from the virus every day.
“Under my leadership, we’re delivering a safe vaccine and a rapid recovery like no one can even believe,” Mr Trump insisted. “If you look at our upward path, no country in the world has recovered the way we have recovered.”
His voice was perhaps a touch scratchy but otherwise, Mr Trump appeared to be his usual self.
Boisterous and bellicose, he thanked the audience for their well-wishes and declared he was no longer contagious as he embarked on a frenetic final stretch of the campaign.
Mr Trump insisted that, after being given experimental medication and other VIP treatment, he felt well and was glad he no longer needed to be concerned about infection because he was now “immune”.
“I feel so powerful,” Mr Trump said, displaying no obvious signs of lingering infection.“I’ll walk into that audience. I’ll walk in there, I’ll kiss everyone in that audience. I’ll kiss the guys and the beautiful women … everybody. I’ll just give you a big fat kiss.”
Dr Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, told CNN on Monday people who recovered from Covid-19 were likely to be immune for a limited period of time, but there are cases emerging of people being re-infected weeks or months later.
Dr Fauci questioned the wisdom of holding such an event, noting test positivity rates were climbing in parts of the Sun Belt.
“We know that that is asking for trouble when you do that,” Dr Fauci said.
Despite Mr Trump’s battle with a deadly disease, it was striking how little had changed. Threats to kiss audience members aside, the rally felt like many others during the president’s election battle against Democrat Joe Biden.
Mr Trump returned to his many usual attack lines, slamming Democrats as “engaged and unhinged and out for vengeance” and hyping “tremendous progress” on virus therapeutics.
He promised the third-quarter economy would be “record-setting” and claimed that if he won next month “normal life” would resume whereas Mr Biden would delay the vaccine and destroy the economy with a “draconian” lockdown.
When he was finished after around an hour, with his new exit song YMCA blaring over the loudspeakers, the president did what has become his trademark dance, pumping his fists somewhat in time to the beat as the crowd roared. Still, he kept his distance from the audience.
With three weeks to go before the election, Mr Trump is pushing to correct a stubborn deficit in national and battleground state polling as he continues to spread misinformation about a virus he spent months downplaying.
That includes in Florida, which is seen as crucial to his re-election chances. Mr Trump narrowly beat his 2016 rival, Democrat Hillary Clinton, in the state by just over 112,000 votes. Some recent polls have suggested a close race in the state, while others have Mr Biden ahead.
Underscoring the importance of Florida, Mr Trump will be back in the state on Friday for another rally, this time in Ocala.
Mr Trump’s Sanford rally was his first stop in a busy week that will include events in Pennsylvania, Iowa, North Carolina, Georgia and Wisconsin.
The robust schedule highlights the urgency he is facing to recover from a series of self-inflicted setbacks that have rattled his base of support and triggered alarm among Republicans who fear the White House is on the verge of being lost.
After Air Force One lifted off from Washington, the president’s doctor released an update on his health saying Mr Trump had tested negative for the virus — and had done so on consecutive days. His doctor, Navy Commander Scott Conley, said the tests, taking in conjunction with other data, including viral load, have led him to conclude that Mr Trump was not contagious.
Still, Mr Trump’s decision to so quickly return to the campaign trail drew criticism from Mr Biden and other Democrats.
“President Trump comes to Sanford today bringing nothing but reckless behaviour, divisive rhetoric, and fear mongering,” Mr Biden said in a statement. “But, equally dangerous is what he fails to bring: no plan to get this virus that has taken the lives of over 15,000 Floridians under control.”
Mr Trump continued to mock Mr Biden for his efforts to encourage social distancing at his campaign events, deriding as “crazy” the circles Mr Biden’s campaign uses to delineate individual space.