WASHINGTON D.C., Oct 5, 2020, SCMP. They arrived from miles around, weathering the hot sun, dust and wind to pay homage to their injured hero. Ever since US President Donald Trump was transferred by helicopter to the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, after testing positive for Covid-19, hundreds of his supporters have kept a vigil in front of the hospital’s gates as they pray for his recovery, commune and strut their stuff, South China Morning Post reported.
They have ranged from women toting dogs in baby carriages to men waving bibles to political activists waving Uygur banners and Israeli flags.
“The presidential suite is fairly high in Bethesda tower. I think he can see us,” said John Murphy, 63, a retired mechanical engineer wearing jeans and a red “Make America Great Again” hat. Leaning against a fence, he gestured back toward the tower at the centre of the Walter Reed complex, a storied hospital that has treated presidents, generals and statesmen since 1909. “I’m here to support him.”
Their patience paid off when, in a surprise move on Sunday afternoon, Trump left the hospital and took a quick drive by to see his supporters gathered outside.
Hours earlier, the president’s medical team confirmed that his blood oxygen level dropped suddenly twice in recent days. But they also said he could be discharged as early as Monday.
“It’s been a very interesting journey. I learned a lot about Covid,” Trump said, standing in his hospital room in a video posted on social media. “I learned it by really going to school.”
At least one medical professional inside Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where Trump has been hospitalised since Friday evening, questioned whether Trump had really learned anything.
“Every single person in the vehicle during that completely unnecessary presidential ‘drive-by’ just now has to be quarantined for 14 days. They might get sick. They may die. For political theatre. Commanded by Trump to put their lives at risk for theatre. This is insanity,” Dr James P. Phillips, an attending doctor at Walter Reed, tweeted.
Most of Trump’s supporters were lined up against a railing facing traffic including Tamara Fryziuk, 51, who drove up from North Carolina to show her opposition to “liberal lies” as she reflects on a New York Times report last month that Trump paid just US$750 in taxes in 2016 and 2017 and nothing over several other years. That compares, according to the conservative Tax Foundation, with US$11,175 for the average American taxpayer.
“I wish I only paid $750 a year, it only shows how smart he is,” said Fryziuk, standing beside her daughter Stephanie and small white dog Sophie wearing a pink halter. “I only wish he’d teach me.”
Fryziuk, a cardiac nurse, added that she gives Trump high marks for his handling of the pandemic, which has killed some 210,000 Americans. Tapes made by the author Bob Woodward for Rage, his book about the president, show that Trump knew how deadly the virus was as early as February 7 but chose to downplay its effects, discourage mask wearing and urge a rapid opening of the economy.
“He did everything he could do for us without trying to create panic,” said Fryziuk, a purple jumper tied around her waist. “I mean, we had a toilet paper shortage! He never lied to anyone. He never told anyone they shouldn’t wear a mask.”
As she speaks a family of three starts blasting a wall of sound from curved brown onyx horns toward the hospital some 300 metres behind a chain-link fence and a line of police cars. “We’re trying to pray for him,” one of the family members explained before heading off.
The crowd numbered a few hundred people, not counting repeat visitors in a flotilla of cars and pickup trucks riding back and forth on Wisconsin Avenue past the hospital waving Trump flags, their heads bobbing from sunroofs to a chant of “four more years”.
Rising above the sound of supportive car horns, a young man with black sweatpants and a pimply face urged on the crowd with a string of eclectic shouts through a large white megaphone on topics ranging from war and illegal aliens to the pandemic and foreign policy. “China lied and people died,” he said.
“You’re a patriot,” an appreciative bystander called out. “I AM a patriot,” he called back.
Most of the news crews, staked out for days awaiting scraps of news from doctors occasionally emerging from the hospital’s double brass doors, were on the opposite side of Wisconsin. As the light changed, a television crew from Sky News ventured toward the supporters past a prominent “Fake News” sign.
This appeared to gall a man in a red muscle shirt, bandana and large tattoo the length of his left arm, who started yelling at the female reporter and her male cameraman. “Why don’t you cover the people enslaved in China rather than here,” he said. “This is a free country, I can say whatever I want to.”
Banging a gong nearby, Tess Taylor, a resident of Arlington, Virginia, said she supports Trump because he’s “pro-life, pro-God, pro-America”, and added that she expected him to win in the November election, even though he’s well behind Democrat challenger Joe Biden in most polls.
“I’ve been 30 years in America and never seen such enthusiasm. Just look at this around you,” the Philippines-born Taylor said. “I think Republicans are the silent Americans,” she added over the blast of a loudhailer.
The signs were as varied as the crowd, large and small, professional and handmade, most in various shades of red, white and blue. A supporter in a red T-shirt with the lettering “I’m Big On The Pig” suggestively cradling a life-size cut-out of first lady Melania Trump near someone holding a rather head-scratching “You Can’t Spell Trump Without Trump” sign.
Many said they grabbed whatever Trump sign they could find, but Alex, 27, from Waldorf, Maryland, declined to give his last name, said he carefully chose his flag, which cost US$6.86 on eBay. “This one upsets people the most,” he said, as he accidentally hit someone with the oversized blue “Keep America Great” banner. “This one gets me extra attention.”
Additional reporting by Associated Press