Trump's COVID bombshell: He was symptomatic three days before debate with Biden

Trump's former chief of staff, Mark Meadows, dropped the news before participating in the Jan. 6 committee's probe

By Jon Skolnik

Published December 1, 2021 11:06AM (EST)

US President Donald Trump wears a facemask as he leaves Walter Reed Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland heading to Marine One on October 5, 2020, to return to the White House after being discharged. (SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump wears a facemask as he leaves Walter Reed Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland heading to Marine One on October 5, 2020, to return to the White House after being discharged. (SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

Donald Trump tested positive for COVID-19 just days before he was slated to debate with then-nominee Joe Biden, according to a forthcoming memoir by Trump's chief of staff, Mark Meadows. 

In the book, obtained by The Guardian, Meadows claims that Trump tested positive for the virus less than 72 hours prior to the first presidential debate, a result that would have disqualified the former president from appearing onstage. Shortly after, however, Trump was administered another test, which came back negative. 

"Nothing was going to stop [Trump] from going out there," Meadows describes. 

RELATED: Trump didn't disclose first positive COVID-19 test in Fox News interview with Sean Hannity: report

The former president denied ever having COVID just ahead of the debate, saying in a statement that "the story of me having COVID prior to, or during, the first debate is Fake News. In fact, a test revealed that I did not have COVID prior to the debate."

But Trump first received a positive test three days before the debate, on September 26 of last year, according to Meadows' account. On that same day, the former president attended a ceremony in the White House Rose Garden, which is widely thought to have resulted in 12 infections amongst attendees due to a lack of COVID health precautions, according to CNN.

Following the event, Meadows recounts, Trump "looked a little tired" while en route to a rally in Pennsylvania. And later that night, Meadows was informed that the former president had tested positive for coronavirus. 

"Stop the president from leaving," Trump's physician, Sean Conley, allegedly told Meadows. "He just tested positive for COVID."


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"Mr. President," Meadows later told the president over the phone, "I've got some bad news. You've tested positive for COVID-19."

RELATED: When did Trump get the virus — and when did he know it?

Later, Meadows alleges, Trump was tested with a newer model kit, which led to a negative result. Meadows recalls hearing a "'Thank God' that echoed through the cabin of Air Force One. According to The Guardian, Meadows wrote that Trump used the negative result as "full permission to press on as if nothing had happened," but Meadows instructed his staff to remain cautious. 

In the days following, Trump carried on with his schedule, visiting Gold Star families at a White House reception, holding an indoor press briefing, unveiling a new COVID-19 testing strategy at the White House Rose Garden, and more.

On September 29, the day of the debate, Trump reportedly arrived at the event too late to be tested, forcing organizers to rely on the honor system, said debate host Chris Wallace. Three days later, on October 2, Trump publicly announced that he and his first lady, Melania Trump, had tested positive for the coronavirus. In the days following, Trump and the White House reportedly downplayed the severity of his condition, according to The New York Times. Trump's blood oxygen level was reportedly extremely depressed, with many officials believing that he needed to be put on a ventilator. 

RELATED: Trump says he and Melania tested positive for COVID-19

On Tuesday, the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol announced that Meadows had reversed course and agreed to cooperate with their investigation. 


Jon Skolnik

Jon Skolnik is a staff writer at Salon. His work has appeared in Current Affairs, The Baffler, and The New York Daily News.

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