Donald Trump has left the Walter Reed military hospital where he is being treated for COVID-19 to thank supporters gathered outside.
It came immediately after the US President posted an upbeat video message thanking his medical team, saying he “learned a lot” about the coronavirus.
“We’re getting great reports from the doctors, this is an incredible hospital Walter Reed, the work they do is just absolutely amazing and I want to thank them all, the nurses, the doctors, everybody here,” he said.
“It’s been a very interesting journey. I learned a lot about COVID. I learned it by really going to school – this is a real school, this isn’t the ‘let’s read the book’ school – and I get it, I understand it, and it’s a very interesting thing, and I’m going to be letting you know about it.”
He thanked the crowd gathered outside waving flags and signs, saying he was going to pay them “a little surprise visit”.
Mr Trump was then seen waving at supporters as his motorcade drove past.
He has since returned to the hospital in Bethesda, Maryland, where he was flown late Friday after his symptoms worsened.
“President Trump took a short, last-minute motorcade ride to wave to his supporters outside and has now returned to the Presidential Suite inside Walter Reed,” the White House said in a statement.
The brief excursion came after Mr Trump’s doctors said he had “continued to improve” and could be discharged as early as Monday, even as they admitted his symptoms had been worse than they previously reported.
Critics slammed the President for putting lives at risk – not of his supporters, but the Secret Service agents in the car with him.
“That Presidential SUV is not only bulletproof, but hermetically sealed against chemical attack,” tweeted Dr James Phillips, an attending physician at Walter Reed.
“The risk of COVID-19 transmission inside is as high as it gets outside of medical procedures. The irresponsibility is astounding. My thoughts are with the Secret Service forced to play.”
Dr Phillips noted that “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,” he said. “They may die. For political theatre. Commanded by Trump to put their lives at risk for theatre. This is insanity.”
Yashar Ali, a journalist and former Hillary Clinton campaign staffer, shared a text message he claimed was from a former Secret Service agent.
“I am beside myself,” the message said.
“He is wilfully disregarding the health and safety of the agents around him. They have no choice as they will carry out their mission but if this is not a clear indication that he could give two s**ts about their health and safety then I do not know what it.”
It continued, “I remember a time when we used to judge protectees based on whether or not they travelled over the holidays, thus impacting the family lives of the agents. Now moving forward I guess the litmus test is whether or not the President will kill me.”
Washington Post “NeverTrump” columnist Jennifer Rubin described it as “criminally reckless conduct”.
“The GOP is a death cult. There is only one pro-life party and it’s not them,” she said.
“I would hope that if any harm comes to those agents the attorney-general of (Maryland) will indict Trump for reckless endangerment, assault (yes the virus he gives off count), etc.”
The Lincoln Project, a controversial anti-Trump political action committee, was also furious.
“He just willing (sic) endangered innocent people in order to feed his small ego. He will never change,” the group tweeted, later posting a side-by-side photo of Michael Jackson dangling his baby son from the balcony.
“Same energy,” the group wrote.
CNN’s Kaitlan Collins noted that the Secret Service agents riding in the car appeared to be wearing medical-grade masks, face shields and gowns over their clothes.
Conservative commentators dismissed the outrage and defended the car ride.
“It’s really something to behold watching the media mask their raging anger at Trump recovering from COVID by pretending to care about his Secret Service staff,” tweeted Daily Wire contributor Harry Khachatrian.
“What they’re really mad at is how the car ride just proved all of their anonymous sources wrong,” wrote Greg Price from The Daily Caller.
Drew Holden from the Washington Examiner said, “If it were Obama leaving his hospital room, we’d be getting fawning coverage from the media about how the President’s bravery was a heroic inspiration for a nation brought to its knees by a deadly pandemic.”
Associated Press reporter Zeke Miller, president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, complained that journalists were not informed of the car ride.
“It is outrageous for the President to have left the hospital – even briefly – amid a health crisis without a protective pool present to ensure that the American people know where their President is and how he is doing,” Miller said in a statement.
“Now more than ever, the American public deserves independent coverage of the President so they can be reliably informed about his health.”