The Complicit Physician

For the past several days, President Donald Trump has had COVID-19. It’s unclear for how many days, because the president’s physician, Sean Conley, refuses to share that information. When asked again yesterday, Conley told reporters, “I don’t want to move backwards.”

In fact, Conley has shared very little about the course of the president’s illness.

On Friday, the same day Trump informed Americans that he had tested positive, he was taken to the hospital “out of an abundance of caution,” according to his press secretary.

By the next morning, the narrative had shifted. Conley said that Trump was “doing much better,” but relative to what, exactly? Then, on Monday, Conley told reporters that the president was to be discharged to the White House. “He’s back,” Conley said with a smile.

To hear Conley tell it, Trump was also never gone. The story of his illness jumped from “nothing to see here” to “mission accomplished.” Trump reportedly worked out of the presidential suite at the military hospital as the White House reassured Americans that his job could be done well from there. It released images of him in a suit at a desk, next to a telephone. Now, according to Conley, the president is back at the White House, where he can get “world-class medical care, 24/7.”

Last night, Trump was helicoptered back to the White House, crossing the lawn and removing his mask to salute Marine One in a spectacle that quickly was turned into a gauzy campaign-style video. The president is declaring victory. “Don’t be afraid of COVID,” he tweeted earlier in the day. “Don’t let it dominate your life.”

This is a dangerous narrative, and Trump’s doctor has helped to shape it. Conley has served as Trump’s publicist in a white coat, reassuring Americans at every turn that Trump is doing well, while leaving out conspicuous details. His vaguery and obfuscation have repeatedly undermined these reassurances. His ethical obligation to his patient is in direct conflict with the basic moral imperative not to lie, by omission or otherwise.

Any physician has a duty to the public as well, specifically when dealing with a patient who poses a direct threat to others. Conley is seemingly intent on informing the country how strong the president is, making him complicit in the downplaying of this disease when what the country needs is the bare truth.