Trump Knew He Tested Positive for COVID-19 Before Debating Biden

In a new book, Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows wrote that the president received a positive COVID-19 test three days before debating Biden.
December 1, 2021, 4:02pm
Then-U.S. President Donald Trump tested positive for COVID-19 before a presidential debate in Nashville, Tennessee with Joe Biden on September 29, 2020.
Then-U.S. President Donald Trump tested positive for COVID-19 before a presidential debate in Nashville, Tennessee with Joe Biden on September 29, 2020. (Kevin Dietsch / UPI / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Then-President Donald Trump tested positive for COVID-19 three days before debating Joe Biden and almost a week before he publicly admitted he had the virus, Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows reportedly revealed in his new book.

According to the Guardian, which obtained an advance copy of the book, Meadows wrote that while the debate rules required both candidates “to test negative for the virus within seventy two hours of the start time … Nothing was going to stop [Trump] from going out there.”

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Trump reportedly tested positive on Sept. 26, before receiving a negative test the same day. He took that as an all-clear to continue on his normal schedule as previously planned, which included multiple crowded events where the president refused to wear a mask.

Meadows wrote that Trump looked “a little tired” and thought he had a “slight cold” that day — when he presided over a White House ceremony for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, a likely super-spreader event. Despite that, he headed off on Marine One that afternoon to fly to a Pennsylvania campaign rally.

Just as he took off, White House doctor Sean Conley called Meadows to tell him of the positive test.

“Stop the president from leaving,” Meadows reportedly wrote. “He just tested positive for Covid.” Meadows didn’t reach Trump until he’d boarded Air Force One, where he informed him of the result.

Trump’s reply, Meadows wrote, “rhyme[d] with ‘Oh spit, you’ve gotta be trucking lidding me.’”

Shortly after that, Trump got back a second test that showed a negative result.

Meadows writes that Trump took that call as “full permission to press on as if nothing had happened,” though Meadows says he “instructed everyone in his immediate circle to treat him as if he was positive” throughout the Pennsylvania trip.

“I didn’t want to take any unnecessary risks,” Meadows writes, “but I also didn’t want to alarm the public if there was nothing to worry about—which according to the new, much more accurate test, there was not.”

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That meant the president went about his business, traveling around the country unmasked, for almost a week before a subsequent test showed he was positive for COVID-19.

The new report from Meadows suggests that Trump, then 74, took the debate stage in Cleveland on Sept. 29 next to Joe Biden, then 77, knowing he’d tested positive for COVID-19. Trump and his team were supposed to have taken COVID tests before the debate on-site but showed up too late to take the test, Fox News host and debate moderator Chris Wallace said at the time, saying they’d instead relied on the “honor system.”

Many members of Trump’s entourage who’d been in close contact with the president refused to wear masks at the debate, flouting Cleveland Clinic rules. And Trump mocked Biden’s mask-wearing during the debate.

“Every time you see him, he’s got a mask. He could be speaking 200 feet away from them, and he shows up with the biggest mask I’ve ever seen,” Trump said.

Trump didn’t publicly admit that he had COVID-19 until 1 a.m. EST on Friday, Oct. 2. Within 18 hours, he was sent to Walter Reed Medical Center. That raised eyebrows at the time, since that would have marked a more-rapid decline from early symptoms to serious health risks than the often weeklong process takes. If he had COVID-19 a week earlier, as Meadows said, this makes much more sense. 

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It’s unclear whether Trump took any other COVID tests between those Saturday tests and that Friday morning test—which came only after news leaked that Trump’s close adviser, Hope Hicks, had tested positive for COVID-19—or what those results were.

Trump called the Guardian report on Meadows’ book “fake news” in a statement, but he didn’t actually contradict any of the claims Meadows reportedly lays out.

“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,” Trump said in a statement.

That’s what Meadows said: that one test was positive, another was negative, and Trump took that mixed result to mean he didn’t have COVID.

Biden and his team didn’t catch COVID from Trump. But many others at the White House and Trump’s campaign, as well as other Republicans who visited the White House around that time, were infected as well. 

And it wasn’t confined to Trump’s team. Just hours after Trump received that first positive test, he went to the back of Air Force One, maskless, to talk to reporters. One of those reporters, the New York Times’ Michael Shear, tested positive for COVID-19 a few days later.