Washington (AFP) -
US President Donald Trump will give a public speech at the White House Saturday for the first time since testing positive for Covid-19, as he prepares a dramatic campaign trail return just three weeks before the election.
The 74-year-old commander-in-chief has announced a Florida rally on Monday in an attempt to relaunch his stumbling reelection campaign against surging Democratic rival Joe Biden, who called the president's behavior 'reckless.'
Seeking to project strength and improved health, Trump had refused to participate in next week's scheduled debate after organizers shifted it to an online format out of coronavirus concerns.
On Friday the Commission on Presidential Debates made it official, saying next Thursday's debate is scrapped, leaving an October 22 event the final Trump-Biden showdown before election day on November 3.
That prompted accusations of bias from Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh, who said 'there is no medical reason to stop' the October 15 debate from proceeding.
Knocked off the campaign trail by his three-night hospitalization last week, the president is in the midst of a frenetic bid to catch Biden.
On Friday, during an extended media blitz, Trump falsely claimed that Covid-19 now has a cure.
He also revealed that he'd been told he was near death at the worst of his bout with the virus, which has killed more than 213,000 Americans and severely dented his chances of winning a second term.
Saturday's speech, which a senior administration official said would be on Trump's favored theme of 'law and order,' will give him a chance to dispel lingering doubts about his health.
The crowd will be on the South Lawn of the White House, while the president will speak from the balcony.
A source with knowledge of the planning said all attendees will be required to wear masks and have their temperature checked.
- 'Reckless' conduct -
On Monday Trump takes another major step by holding a rally in a crucial battleground state.
'Will be in Sanford, Florida on Monday for a very BIG RALLY!' Trump tweeted.
The events come despite continued questions over how sick Trump was and how complete his recovery is now, with White House officials refusing to answer basic queries including when the president first contracted the virus and whether he has tested negative since.
After Trump spent months mocking Biden for staying at home during the pandemic, ironically it is Biden who has barnstormed swing states this week.
He visited Arizona Thursday and campaigned Friday in Nevada. Trump won both states in 2016 but they are now narrowly tilting Democratic in polls.
At a drive-in style event in Las Vegas, Biden slammed the president.
'His reckless personal conduct since his diagnosis, the destabilizing effect it's having on our government, is unconscionable,' Biden said.
'He didn't take the necessary precautions to protect himself or others... How can we trust him to protect this country?'
As he boarded his campaign plane he offered a message for those attending Trump's public events: 'Good luck. I wouldn't show up unless you had a mask and were distanced.'
On Friday, Trump gave a marathon interview to right-wing talk radio host Rush Limbaugh in which he said the experimental Regeneron antibody cocktail that he took as part of therapeutic treatment was 'a cure.'
It's 'a total game changer' and 'better than a vaccine,' he said.
In fact, there is no cure and still no approved vaccine for the coronavirus.
Trump repeatedly asserted that he feels fine and he has been backed up by statements from presidential physician Sean Conley.
But in his Limbaugh interview, Trump suggested for the first time that he had been close to death, had it not been for his therapeutic drug regimen.
'I'm talking to you today because of it. I could have been a bad victim,' he said.
Trump said that doctors told him afterward, 'you were going into a very bad phase.'
According to Conley, Trump is now fit for a 'safe return to public engagement' from Saturday.
- Battle for attention -
Trump has tried to fill the campaign trail gap left by his enforced absence by multiple appearances on friendly media outlets.
On Fox's Tucker Carlson Tonight show late Friday he appeared from the White House to undergo what the network described as an on-air 'medical evaluation,' conducted remotely by Fox contributor doctor Marc Siegel.
Polls show Biden leads heavily in key demographics including women and the elderly, prompting analysts to talk increasingly of a possible landslide victory.
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.
Adding to the pressure, Democrats who control the House of Representatives unveiled plans for a commission to investigate a president's fitness for the job -- a move clearly meant to jab at Trump.