WASHINGTON — President Trump said on Saturday that he had taken a coronavirus test and was awaiting results, a little more than 12 hours after the White House physician released a statement saying that because the president had no symptoms, a test was not necessary.
The White House physician, Sean P. Conley, issued a letter at 11:55 p.m. Friday that acknowledged that while the president interacted with at least two people who later tested positive for the coronavirus, he was not recommending home quarantine, and “testing for COVID-19 is not currently indicated.’’
It was unclear if Mr. Trump took the test after the letter was released, or if Dr. Conley’s letter was a falsehood, or if the physician was misleading in his formulation that a test for the president was “not currently indicated” — which did not say directly whether Mr. Trump had been tested.
On Saturday, Mr. Trump’s almost casual admission at a White House news conference of his decision to get tested — not because of his interactions with Brazilian officials who later tested positive for the virus, but because of news media coverage — raised more questions than it answered.
“I decided I should based on the press conference yesterday,” Mr. Trump said. At his news conference in the Rose Garden on Friday, Mr. Trump was pressed repeatedly about whether he would be tested after interacting with a Brazilian official who tested positive for the virus just days after the two men met in Florida. “People were asking, did I take the test,” Mr. Trump said
A clip of Mr. Trump being pressed on the matter played repeatedly on cable news, and appeared to influence his decision to take one.
Mr. Trump left the briefing room before reporters could ask several follow-up questions, but the president said that he had taken his temperature and described it as “totally normal.”
Stephanie Grisham, the White House press secretary, did not respond to questions about whether Mr. Trump took the test before or after the release of Dr. Conley’s letter, or why Mr. Trump would have taken a test in spite of the advice of his doctor.
On Friday, Mr. Trump’s advice to Americans watching his news conference was that “they shouldn’t be jumping to get the test unless it’s necessary, but I think they have to listen to their doctors.”
A senior administration official said only that while testing was not necessary, Mr. Trump “requested the test, and it was his decision to make his personal medical test public.”
Mr. Trump’s test took many officials by surprise. Vice President Mike Pence, according to a senior administration official, learned only on Saturday morning that Mr. Trump had been tested. At the news conference, Mr. Pence was left to handle questions about the president’s decision, some of which he did not appear to know how to answer.
Mr. Pence also indicated that he might soon follow the president’s lead. “I’m going to speak immediately after this press conference with the White House physician’s office,” he told reporters. The physician, he said, had previously advised him that he did not need testing.
Mr. Trump, who sees strength as the most important quality someone can project, has often equated illness with weakness. Over the past week, he has been resisting testing, disregarding the advice of Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who has recommended tests and self-quarantine for anyone who had stood next to someone who had tested positive.
Despite having the imprimatur of the highest level of American government, Dr. Conley’s decision not to recommend a test for Mr. Trump, or any sort of isolation, was at odds with the advice of other physicians, as well as medical experts on the administration’s own coronavirus task force.
The standard protocol is to ask people exposed to a known coronavirus case to stay home and monitor their own health, refraining from their regular activities for 14 days and being tested if they develop symptoms, said Dr. Thomas M. File Jr., the president of the Infectious Diseases Society of America.
As a head of state leading the nation through a turbulent time, the president has a singular responsibility to safeguard his health, said Lawrence O. Gostin, a professor of global health law at Georgetown University. By letting a week go by before agreeing to a test, Mr. Gostin said, Mr. Trump “gives exactly the wrong message to the public, and puts himself and his cabinet at risk.”
But that decision was in line with the course of action Mr. Trump has preferred — avoiding a test whose results could make him face a reality he may not want to acknowledge. It also followed a pattern of Mr. Trump’s career in politics: releasing memos and statements from medical professionals who are willing to say whatever he wants them to say about his health. Dr. Harold N. Bornstein, Mr. Trump’s personal physician during the 2016 campaign, later admitted that a flattering doctor’s letter he released was dictated to him verbatim by Mr. Trump.
Mr. Trump, some experts noted on Saturday, has still never released any details on an unscheduled trip to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center he took in November. Dr. Conley at the time described it vaguely as an “interim checkup,” but Mr. Trump has been unclear about his follow-up plans for a full physical examination.
Whether Mr. Trump has been exposed to the coronavirus has been a subject of furtive discussion among some of his advisers, even before his dinner with President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, whose aides later tested positive. Some have been watching for hints in his affect or physical appearance to determine whether he is feeling ill.
Mr. Trump, they said, would be unlikely to want to admit feeling under the weather. During the 2016 presidential campaign, when Mr. Trump was battling a cold, aides declined to confirm anything was amiss about his health. People close to Mr. Trump said it was in character for Mr. Trump to initially decline to submit to testing for an illness that he had played down for weeks.
Annie Karni reported from Washington, and Maggie Haberman from New York. Roni Caryn Rabin contributed reporting from New York.