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A U.S. Secret Service agent and a White House staff member hold the doors for U.S. President Donald Trump as he exits Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, to return to the White House in Washington on Oct. 5, 2020.

JONATHAN ERNST/Reuters

U.S. President Donald Trump has left Walter Reed hospital after three nights, returning to the White House to convalesce from COVID-19 as he tries to get his re-election bid back on the rails.

But it was still unclear Monday how ill Mr. Trump is, how long he has been sick or how he will isolate at home. The coronavirus outbreak at the White House, meanwhile, continued to grow, with press secretary Kayleigh McEnany testing positive. And it remains an open question whether his campaign can convince enough voters that the pandemic is under control after Mr. Trump and more than a dozen people in his circle have become infected.

Mr. Trump played down the seriousness of the illness in the hours before his discharge.

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“Feeling really good! Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life. We have developed, under the Trump administration, some really great drugs & knowledge,” the President tweeted. “I feel better than I did 20 years ago!”

Trump’s COVID-19 crisis creates an even greater crisis for the U.S.

On COVID-19, Donald Trump has been hoist with his own petard

He emerged from the hospital shortly after 6:30 p.m. and was whisked home by helicopter. Standing on a White House balcony, he removed his white mask, faced news cameras and took deep breaths that appeared to be laboured. The White House gift shop, a private company that often sells Trump memorabilia, announced the release of a commemorative coin labelled “Trump Defeats COVID,” retailing for US$100.

Outside the gates of the hospital in the Washington suburb of Bethesda, Md., hundreds of Mr. Trump’s supporters have maintained an upbeat, carnival-like atmosphere throughout the weekend. On Monday, they waved his campaign flags and chanted “four more years!” as passing cars blared their horns. One man had rigged up a gasoline generator to power a sound system blasting R.E.M.'s It’s the End of the World as We Know It.

The President’s illness, many said, had not shaken their conviction that his approach to COVID-19 is correct. Mr. Trump has continued to hold large campaign rallies with little physical distancing, rarely wears a mask in public and favours lifting containment measures.

“People want to do what they want to do. You can’t hold them back from being patriotic,” said Janet Marcia, 52, who said she is immunocompromised and had left her Annapolis, Md., home for the first time since March to root for the President’s recovery. “I can choose whether I want to go to a movie theatre or go to a grocery store.”

Joe Scruggs, a 22-year-old truck driver from North Carolina, said that because no method of preventing the contraction of the virus is completely foolproof, it is not worth cancelling rallies or imposing other precautions.

“People are going to get it if they’re going to get it, and they’re not going to get it if they’re not going to get it,” he said. “I’ve been all over the country without wearing a mask, and I’ve not gotten it.”

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Supporters of Donald Trump assembled a mini-rally outside the Washington hospital where he spent three days being treated for COVID-19.

A poll by SSRS for CNN conducted after the President’s diagnosis found that 60 per cent of respondents disapproved of his handling of the pandemic, 63 per cent believed he had been irresponsible with his own infection and 69 per cent said they did not trust information from the White House about his health. The poll is considered accurate within 3.3 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

Such numbers are likely to worry Republicans amid a campaign in which the President’s policies on the pandemic – which has killed 214,000 Americans, more than any other country – are a key issue.

White House physician Dr. Sean Conley said Monday that the President is “not entirely out of the woods yet" and would continue to take dexamethasone, a steroid usually reserved for seriously ill patients on ventilators. He also said it would not be clear whether Mr. Trump had recovered until after this weekend. But he contended the President was well enough to leave hospital.

“You’ve seen the videos, and now the tweets, and you’ll see him shortly,” he told reporters outside the hospital. “He’s back. Yeah.”

Dr. Conley would not discuss specifics of the President’s health, including the results of lung scans, which would show whether Mr. Trump had contracted pneumonia, a potential side-effect of the infection. He also would not say when the President had received his last negative COVID-19 test before his positive result Thursday. Such lack of clarity leaves open the possibility that the President had the virus for several days, even as he attended rallies and fundraisers in several states.

The spread of the virus continued through Mr. Trump’s staff Monday when Ms. McEnany announced that she had contracted the infection. Ms. McEnany had briefed reporters at the White House the previous day without wearing a mask.

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Gregory Pichler, 60, one of the President’s supporters outside Walter Reed, said the President had “made a mistake” by not responding more swiftly to the virus last winter. And he said Mr. Trump has “a cavalier attitude” about taking precautions. But Mr. Pichler, who owns a software company in Washington and Toronto, said he still supports Mr. Trump because he agrees with policies such as cutting corporate taxes.

“His overall performance on COVID is mixed. Hindsight is 20/20, but he has to make decisions in real time,” Mr. Pichler said. “You might not have an ideal candidate, but an election is about deciding whether candidate A is more aligned with what you believe than candidate B.”

A handful of protesters, however, argued that Mr. Trump had fumbled too badly to be trusted with the world’s most powerful political office.

Jason Preston, a 40-year-old stylist, held up a homemade sign reading “COVID 19 – Trump 0.”

“It’s karma at its finest,” he said. “He took it lightly, and now we’re all paying for it. And now he’s paying for it.”

Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters and editors.

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Editor’s note: (Oct. 6, 2020) This updates to clarify that the White House gift shop is a private company.
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