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Trump Lashes Out at His Cabinet With Calls to Indict Political Rivals

WASHINGTON — President Trump berated his own cabinet officers on Thursday for not prosecuting or implicating his political enemies, lashing out even as he announced that he hoped to return to the campaign trail on Saturday just nine days after he tested positive for the coronavirus.

In his first extended public comments since learning he had the virus last week, Mr. Trump went on the offensive not only against his challenger, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., but the Democratic running mate, Senator Kamala Harris, whom he called “a monster” and a “communist.” He balked at participating in his debate next Thursday with Mr. Biden if held remotely as the organizers decided to do out of health concerns.

But Mr. Trump secured a statement from the White House physician clearing him to return to public activities on Saturday and then promptly said he would try to hold a campaign rally in Florida that day, two days earlier than the doctor had originally said was needed to determine whether he was truly out of danger. The president again dismissed the virus, saying, “when you catch it, you get better,” ignoring the more than 212,000 people in the United States who did not get better and died from it.

In his statement on Thursday night, the physician, Dr. Sean P. Conley, reported that Mr. Trump “has responded extremely well to treatment” and that by Saturday, “I fully expect the president’s return to public engagement.” Dr. Conley, who has previously acknowledged providing the public with a rosy view of the president’s condition to satisfy his patient, contradicted his own timeline offered upon Mr. Trump’s release from the hospital, when he said doctors wanted to “get through to Monday.”

The president has not been seen in person since returning to the White House this Monday, but he sought to reassert himself on the public stage with a pair of telephone interviews with Fox News and Fox Business as well as a video and a series of Twitter messages. Even for him, they were scattershot performances, ones that advisers said reflected increasing frustration over his political fortunes only 26 days before an election with surveys that show him trailing Mr. Biden by double digits.

The president castigated his own team, declaring that Attorney General William P. Barr would go down in history “as a very sad, sad situation” if he did not indict Democrats like Mr. Biden and former President Barack Obama. He complained that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had not released Hillary Clinton’s emails, saying, “I’m not happy about him for that reason.” And he targeted Christopher A. Wray, the F.B.I. director. “He’s been disappointing,” Mr. Trump said.

“Unless Bill Barr indicts these people for crimes, the greatest political crime in the history of our country, then we’re going to get little satisfaction unless I win and we’ll just have to go, because I won’t forget it,” Mr. Trump said, referring to the investigation into his 2016 campaign ties with Russia. “But these people should be indicted. This was the greatest political crime in the history of our country, and that includes Obama and it includes Biden.”

Mr. Trump has often argued that his political antagonists should be prosecuted, but in this case, he went further by indicating that he had directly pressured Mr. Barr to indict without waiting for more evidence. “He’s got all the information he needs,” the president said. “They want to get more, more, more, they keep getting more. I said, ‘You don’t need any more.’”

The president was all over the map in his two Fox phone calls, throwing out unsubstantiated or discredited accusations, explaining that he wanted to bring home troops from Afghanistan to be ready to fight China or Russia if necessary and calling Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan “the lockup queen” even as his own Justice Department was announcing the existence of an anti-government group’s plot to kidnap her.

As for his opponents, he said on Fox Business that Mr. Biden “wouldn’t be president for two months” because “he’s not mentally capable,” leaving Ms. Harris to then take over the presidency. “She’s a communist,” he said. “We’re going to have a communist.” A few hours later, Mr. Trump reposted Twitter messages claiming that Speaker Nancy Pelosi might be orchestrating “a coup” against him.

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Credit…Pete Marovich for The New York Times

Mr. Trump told his Fox interviewers that he felt well despite his hospitalization, although during his evening phone call with Sean Hannity, his voice at times sounded raspy and twice he had to clear his throat. During his hourlong morning call with Maria Bartiromo, he seemed to suggest he may have been infected by the Gold Star parents of soldiers killed in battle at an event honoring them last month at the White House, although a spokeswoman later denied he meant that.

Fellow Republicans exhibited increasing frustration with the president’s casual approach to the virus that has now infected not just himself and the first lady but two dozen other high-ranking officials, campaign aides, advisers and Republican senators who attended White House events. Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, even indicated that he was boycotting the White House because of its lax handling of the virus.

“I haven’t actually been to the White House since August the 6th because my impression was that their approach to how to handle this is different from mine and what I suggested that we do in the Senate, which is to wear a mask and practice social distancing,” Mr. McConnell told reporters.

After being rebuffed by the White House, the Washington city government’s health department released an open letter to the staff members and guests who attended a Sept. 26 ceremony in the Rose Garden that has been blamed for the outbreak, imploring them to get tested for the virus. Crede Bailey, the head of the White House security office, has been hospitalized and a fourth White House journalist tested positive on Thursday.

Ms. Pelosi said she planned to introduce legislation on Friday creating a commission on presidential capacity to review the health of a commander in chief under provisions of the 25th Amendment providing for the temporary transfer of power to the vice president in case of inability to discharge the duties of the office. “Crazy Nancy is the one who should be under observation,” Mr. Trump replied on Twitter.

Video

transcript

McConnell Says He’s Avoided White House Over Lack of Virus Measures

Senator Mitch McConnell said he had not been to the White House since August.

Well, I’ve been following, following the advice of the C.D.C. and the Capitol physician. I can tell you, I haven’t been to the White House since Aug. 6. And I personally didn’t feel that they were approaching protection from this illness in the same way that I thought was appropriate for the Senate. And the Senate has been operating in a way that I think has largely prevented contraction of this disease.

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Senator Mitch McConnell said he had not been to the White House since August.CreditCredit…Anna Moneymaker for The New York Times

The president’s phone interviews were his first time answering questions since he was infected with the virus and flown to the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where he stayed for three nights. He said he was no longer taking the experimental drugs used to treat the virus, but he added that he was still taking a steroid that doctors say can produce bursts of energy, euphoria and even a sense of invulnerability.

“I felt pretty lousy,” Mr. Trump said. But, he added, “I’m back because I’m a perfect physical specimen and I’m extremely young.” He once again played down the severity of the disease. “Now what happens is you get better,” he said. “That’s what happens, you get better.”

Mr. Trump later released a video addressed specifically to senior citizens, who were once his political base but have increasingly soured on him as they have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, according to polls.

“To my favorite people in the world, the seniors,” he said in the video. “I’m a senior. I know you don’t know that. Nobody knows that. Maybe you don’t have to tell them. But I’m a senior.”

Acknowledging that he had been “very sick,” he praised the experimental treatments he was given for the virus and vowed to provide them to seniors. “I want you to get the same care that I got,” he said. “You’re going to get the same medicine. You’re going to get it free, no charge, and we’re going to get it to you soon.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that a person infected with the coronavirus can be with other people 10 days after symptoms first appear if the patient has gone 24 hours free of fever without the use of medication that reduces temperatures and if other symptoms are improving.

The onset of the president’s symptoms remains murky; if he started feeling sick on Oct. 1, the day he reported testing positive, then a Saturday return would be premature by C.D.C. guidelines. If he had his first symptoms the day before, then Saturday would meet the 10-day mark. Mr. Trump’s doctors have said he has not experienced fever in days, but the dexamethasone steroid he is taking is known to hide a fever.

Experts said resuming a public schedule might worsen Mr. Trump’s condition, which could still rapidly deteriorate in the next several days. Covid-19, an unpredictable disease, can suddenly and unexpectedly worsen during a patient’s second week of illness. Based on the information provided, “No, I would not clear him to start public engagements on Saturday,” said Dr. Phyllis Tien, an infectious disease physician at the University of California, San Francisco, where she conducts and advises on Covid-19 clinical trials.

White House aides privately expressed concern about whether the president’s animated mood in recent days stemmed from the dexamethasone. Doctors not involved with the president’s care said it could have a significant effect on a patient’s behavior.

Dr. Negin Hajizadeh, a pulmonary/critical care physician at Northwell Health, noted that the majority of Covid patients receiving dexamethasone are on mechanical ventilation and in a state of induced coma, so they do not exhibit any behavioral side effects. But, she said, large studies show that generally 28 to 30 percent of patients will exhibit mild to moderate psychiatric side effects like anxiety, insomnia, mania or delirium after receiving steroid treatments, and about 6 percent may develop psychosis.

“When we prescribe steroids we warn our patients: ‘This may cause you to feel jittery, might cause you to feel irritable,’” Dr. Hajizadeh said. “We will tell family members, especially for our older patients, ‘This may cause insomnia, this may cause changes in eating habits and, in extreme cases, mania and impaired decision making.’”

Watching the news coverage and angry at the state of the race, Mr. Trump has been imploring aides to let him resume campaign rallies as soon as this weekend. He showed up again in the Oval Office on Thursday despite efforts to get him to remain in the residence until he was more fully recovered. In addition to the attempt to hold a rally in Florida on Saturday, he said he would try to stage one the following day in Pennsylvania.

Credit…Anna Moneymaker for The New York Times

Around the White House and inside the Trump campaign, some advisers were worried about how far down he was in the polls, roughly 10 percentage points on average. Others looked to the calendar and argued that there is still a lot of time left even as they realized that there are few if any opportunities to change the trajectory of the race. That would be especially true without next week’s debate.

Campaign noted that the “Access Hollywood” tape with its sexually offensive banter that was seen as the end of his 2016 candidacy emerged on Oct. 7 that year, roughly the same point in the campaign as now. But something else happened that day that helped distract attention from the tape: the leak of emails stolen by Russia from Mrs. Clinton’s campaign chairman.

Mr. Trump appeared eager for such a bolt of lightning this year as he talked with Ms. Bartiromo on Thursday. He spent a striking amount of time on the four-year-old investigation of Mrs. Clinton’s emails at the same time another 1,000 people died of the coronavirus in the United States on Wednesday and his own White House had become the biggest hot spot in the nation’s capital.

Alex Conant, a Republican strategist and former aide to Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, said that the Trump campaign was entering a dangerous period, one when a campaign heading for a possible defeat can become treacherous.

“The knives come out, the donors flee and the candidate throws embarrassing Hail Marys,” he said. “Most politicians can handle losing a race, but they really don’t want to be embarrassed. When a loss seems inevitable, people who want a future in politics start looking out for their own interests. People start looking over their shoulders.”

Peter Baker reported from Washington, and Maggie Haberman from New York. Reporting was contributed by Gina Kolata, Roni Caryn Rabin, Katie Thomas and Katherine J. Wu from New York.

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