Golden autumn sunshine shone down on Washington on Saturday to illuminate a US capital upended as Donald Trump began his first full day in hospital battling coronavirus amid a presidential election thrown into chaos.
Related: Amy Coney Barrett: quick confirmation under threat as three senators infected
Just hours earlier, on Friday evening after an excruciating wait for news, the president had emerged from the White House with a lacklustre wave and thumbs up, but ignoring reporters’ shouted questions about the state of his health.
Trump stalked slowly across the south lawn and boarded the US presidential helicopter. The only visual clue that something profound had changed was Trump’s face: he was wearing a mask.
As Marine One lifted into the sky just before sunset, the president left behind a White House staff suddenly rudderless, fearful and unsure how the story will end. The reality TV star turned president has delivered his greatest moment of suspense and the presidential election with its first “October surprise” but maybe not its last.
Trump, 74, is spending the weekend at a military hospital near Washington after discovering that not even the commander in chief of the world’s most powerful country is immune to the coronavirus. Said to be feverish and fatigued, there is huge uncertainty over his condition, its potential to deteriorate and whether he might become incapacitated.
In his absence, the mood in the White House was said to be one of panic, with growing concern over the extent of the spread of the virus within the building and whether it could disrupt the functioning of government.
Staff have taken their lead from Trump’s bubble of denial for months, eschewing face masks and congregating in the west wing’s cramped spaces and narrow hallways. The president’s positive test was chilling proof of what the rest of the country has long known: no one is safe.
“People are losing their minds,” one source told the Washington Post newspaper.
As Friday wore on and Trump’s condition worsened, staff were also forced to confront the possibility that his health could be at serious risk. An information vacuum filled with rumour and speculation and did little to calm nerves, with media outlets forced to depend on leaks from anonymous officials or presidential tweets such as: “Going welI, I think! Thank you to all. LOVE!!!”
The heavily guarded White House is one of the world’s most secure properties with a new 13ft tall fence to keep out intruders, protesters and terrorists. Yet it too was breached by the invisible pathogen that has killed more than 205,000 Americans. Commentators said there could be no greater proof of the administration’s failure to combat the pandemic.
How, when or from whom Trump became infected remains a mystery. But the myth of invulnerability may have been finally shattered by an event in the White House Rose Garden last Saturday in which he nominated judge Amy Coney Barrett to the supreme court. More