By the time the sun rose on Walter Reed medical center in suburban Washington on Sunday, a small but diverse group of 15 supporters had gathered by the gate, waving Trump banners towards the passing drivers, whose reactions ranged from a honking horn to a middle finger and curses.
By evening, the gathering of the faithful had swollen to several score and their patience and resolve was rewarded by a slow drive-past by the first patient himself, determine to show his followers he was undimmed by his brush with virus, whatever the cost to the Secret Service men obliged to sit in his hermetically-sealed armoured car.
Ann and James Wass had been there since before dawn and had been unperturbed by the negative reactions in this solidly Democratic neighbourhood. They had come to pray for Donald Trump and were inviting everyone who passed to do the same, whatever their religious inclination.
They were not wearing masks because they were outdoors, the Wasses said, despite the close proximity to their fellow Trump fans.
“Some people get sick, some people don’t get sick,” Ann observed. The president would pull through despite his age, she predicted, because he did not smoke or drink and got regular exercise, though she did concede “he is a tad overweight”.
By nine, the sunlight was illuminating the smooth green lawns that slope up to the imposing art deco tower of the US navy hospital. The Wasses, however, had been there since six, arriving from their Maryland home when, as James put it, “the moon was doing a nice dance in the western sky”.
By then, the crowd of about 50 supporters who had been at the gate on Saturday night had dispersed and there was just a determined handful who had stayed overnight. That included five Chinese exiles who were members of a new organisation called the New Federal State of China, created in June by the rightwing ideologue and former Trump adviser Steve Bannon and a New York-based Chinese businessman, Guo Wengui.
The Chinese demonstrators held up signs saying “Take Down the CCP” (Chinese Communist party) and “CCP Virus Kill People”, while displaying a more detailed sign that accused the Chinese government of unleashing the coronavirus deliberately. They could not explain further as none of the five spoke English.
The only non-Chinese Trump fan who had stayed through the night was Richard Potcner, a self-described citizen journalist, landscape designer and the doyen of the group, having been at Walter Reed since Trump was first helicoptered in on Friday evening.
He has been an outspoken sceptic on the seriousness of the coronavirus threat and the president’s illness had not changed his mind. Nor had it swayed him on the utility of wearing a mask.
“I don’t know any animals that wear a mask and they’re not sick. I got lots of friends that didn’t leave their house for six months and they got sick,” Potcner said. “I got more friends who wore a mask every day and they got sick. And I know friends who are cashiers, they’ve been working as cashiers for six months, and they’re not sick.”
Overall, he predicted Trump’s coronavirus episode would only enhance his chances of re-election.
“Look – we are in this liberal weird little swamp here,” Potcner said, pointing towards the centre of Washington. “The swamp is right there and you should have heard the horns going past last night. The horns are deafening liberal America.”
The honking of passing horns was nothing, however, compared to the roar from the crowd that rallied by Sunday evening when a motorcade of black cars emerged from another hospital gate and drove past slowly, a masked president staring out from his vehicle.
The drive-past came to a surprise to almost everyone. Not even the White House press pool had been alerted. Trump had recorded a video earlier, in which he expressed his thrill at seeing the loyalty of the fans at the gate. They were “great patriots” who had “been out there for a long time and they’ve got Trump flags and they love our country”.
The crowd ran after his car waving their flags, giving the president a fix of the adoration which he has said keeps him energised in his toughest moment. It went against any doctor’s recommendations and exposed his bodyguards to risk, but to Trump it was the medicine he really needed.