WASHINGTON: President Donald Trump appeared maskless before hundreds of supporters on Saturday (Oct 10) for his first public event since contracting COVID-19, declaring from the White House balcony: "I am feeling great."
"I want you to know our nation is going to defeat this terrible China virus," Trump told the cheering crowd of hundreds below, most wearing masks but with very little social distancing at the outdoor event.
"It's going to disappear, it is disappearing," Trump said of the coronavirus, which has killed more than 210,000 Americans and severely dented his chances of winning a second term on Nov 3.
"Get out and vote - and I love you," Trump told the crowd - a sea of red "MAGA" hats - who chanted back "four more years" throughout his 18-minute, law-and-order themed speech.
"Right now I'm medication-free, I'm not taking any medications as of, you know, probably eight hours ago," Trump told Fox News on Friday night, the first on-camera interview since his diagnosis and three-night hospitalisation.
Trump plans to hold a rally on Monday in the critical swing state of Florida - a decision slammed as "reckless" by his election rival Joe Biden, in light of concerns the president might still be contagious.
Undeterred, the Trump campaign announced two more rallies next week - in battleground Pennsylvania Tuesday and in Iowa on Wednesday.
And on Saturday dozens of Trump supporters with red "MAGA" heads were massing eagerly outside the White House to listen to an outdoor address expected to focus on law enforcement in Black communities.
"Trump is the kind of president, that if he is standing to defend a certain cause, he defends it," said one of them, a US service member of Mexican descent named Daniel, who said he wanted to show his support for the police.
For months, taking their cue from a president who mostly shunned, and at times mocked, the wearing of masks, White House advisors were rarely seen masked inside the West Wing.
Since Trump and his wife Melania tested positive, the mood has shifted. A source with knowledge of planning for Saturday's event said all guests will be required to wear a mask to listen to Trump give his address from a balcony.
In the crowd queuing outside, some were masked but many were not.
A similar gathering two weeks ago, to announce the nomination of conservative judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, has been singled out as a likely source of many of the dozens of positive cases since linked to the White House.
Anthony Fauci, the respected director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, has referred to it as a "superspreader event".
Many questions remain unanswered about the White House outbreak, with more than a dozen cases recorded in the president's inner circle, including his spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany.
"When was the president's last negative COVID test?" asked Pete Buttigieg, a former contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, now tipped for a prominent role in a Biden administration should he defeat Trump on Nov 3.
213,000 AMERICANS DEAD
Trump's biggest liability - overwhelming public dissatisfaction over his handling of the pandemic - has returned as the headline issue of the campaign thanks to his own infection, with cases again on the rise nationwide.
The seven-day average of new daily cases recorded between Oct 3 and 9 - 47,184 - was the highest since the week of Aug 13 to Aug 19 with an average of 47,530 new cases, according to an AFP analysis of data from Johns Hopkins University.
"Over 213,000 Americans have died from this virus - and the hard truth is it didn't have to happen this way," Biden tweeted on Saturday.
Barack Obama's former vice president - who is currently riding close to 10 points ahead in national polls and has solidified his lead in key battleground states - is continuing to campaign at his own pace.
In the Republican camp, meanwhile, there is increasingly palpable concern at the state of the race - with some party heavyweights openly sounding the alarm.
"If on Election Day people are angry and they've given up hope and they're depressed ... I think it could be a terrible election," Senator Ted Cruz warned this week.
"I think we could lose the White House and both houses of Congress, that it could be a bloodbath of Watergate proportions."
Trump insists the pollsters are all wrong - and is counting the days until he can get back onto the campaign trail.
"The president does such a great job when he's talking directly to the American people," said his spokesman Hogan Gidley on Fox News Saturday, "without the filter of the mainstream media".