The Wuhan Virus, as President Donald Trump likes to call it, has officially become the Washington Virus. Now plaguing the first couple, three senators, and key White House and campaign aides, the coronavirus is reshaping America’s corridors of power. Don’t expect a humbled president, but you should expect this earthquake of a news cycle — what next, 2020? — to scramble everything from the closing stretch of the fall campaign to how America’s foes are eyeing the world’s premier superpower. Read on to learn more about the path ahead.
Daniel Malloy, Senior Editor
1. The Latest
Trump remains at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where he’s being treated for the coronavirus. He released a four-minute video Saturday night, declaring: “I look forward to finishing up the campaign ... We’re gonna beat this coronavirus, or whatever you wanna call it ... I'm starting to feel good.” At a news conference Sunday morning, his doctors revealed that Trump had been given supplemental oxygen, but said he has had no fever since Friday and could be discharged as soon as Monday. However, it’s been difficult to parse conflicting statements from chief of staff Mark Meadows, Trump’s doctors and confidential sources speaking to reporters to figure out the president’s true condition.
Dr. Sean Conley knows what it’s like to work under pressure: The former Navy surgeon helped save a Romanian soldier’s life in an operation that involvedcracking open the patient’s chest and squeezing his heart to keep it pumping. Still, the president’s physician, who has never faced a spotlight quite like this, is now charged with keeping Trump well in the face of an often deadly virus — and with taming an aggressive press corps seeking answers.
Conley’s evasive news conference Saturday morning prompted much speculation — followed by a cleanup statement about when Trump, 74, tested positive. But it also raised questions about how much information the world is entitled to about the president’s health. Since a 2015 doctor’s note (dictated by Trump) saying he “will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency” to a mysterious unscheduled visit to Walter Reed 11 months ago, Trump’s health has been the subject of much debate. And the president has not had his usual physical this year, either. So while the public clamors for more information about the world’s most important patient, it remains unclear how much will be revealed.
4. Guinea Pig in Chief
Conley said Friday that Trump was being treated with zinc, vitamin D, aspirin and an eight-gram dose of an antibody cocktail made by New York biotech company Regeneron, which began clinical trials in June that have not yet concluded. Early data from those trials looks promising: Regeneron reported last week that the cocktail, which is difficult to make and in short supply, lowered virus levels and helped patients get over symptoms more quickly than placebos, but that was notably for patients not requiring hospitalization. Trump is also being treated with the more common remdesivir, typically associated with stronger symptoms. While Trump is mounting an aggressive — even risky — treatment regimen, it may add stress to the system: What if thousands of coronavirus patients suddenly demand “the Full Trump” treatment before it’s clinically proven to work and widely available?
With Trump having held mask-free debate prep and a not socially distanced announcement ceremony for his Supreme Court pick, Judge Amy Coney Barrett, a wave of positive tests have hit Republican Washington. Others include top aide Hope Hicks, former White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, campaign manager Bill Stepien and Sens. Mike Lee of Utah, Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin. Notre Dame President Rev. John Jenkins, who has apologized for going mask-less and shaking hands at the Barrett event, has also tested positive. Hundreds of students are calling for his resignation for ignoring rules he imposes on them on campus.
COVID-19 related lawsuits so far are mostly targeted at dangerous workplaces. A personal injury lawsuit against someone who gave you the virus would be extremely hard to prove, but if there’s a death tied to someone who’s been in close contact with Trump in recent days, you could see an enterprising lawyer attempt a publicity-garnering case against the president. The timeline of what he knew and when he knew it about his diagnosis, then, becomes that much more important.
8. What About Barrett?
Barrett, who had a bout with the virus over the summer, tested negative, but things could get complicated for her tightly scheduled confirmation if the Senate becomes a hot zone. Lee and Tillis serve on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is considering Barrett’s nomination starting Oct. 12. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has vowed to plow ahead, and both he and Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham have suggested some senators could participate remotely. But they need to vote in person. McConnell could skip a committee vote and bring her nomination to the floor, but he would need 50 percent of available senators voting in person to confirm her, absent a historic rule change in the Senate … which would also require a majority of votes in person. McConnell has notably said the House remote voting scheme “raises enormous constitutional questions.” Lee and Tillis say they’re quarantining for 10 days, putting them back to work by Oct. 12 — but if they or others contract serious symptoms, it could imperil the Barrett nomination. That is, unless Democrats are feeling charitable and agree to abstain from voting.
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Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, 77, who’s been criticized for being more cautious about travel and campaigning than Trump, announced that he’d tested negative — twice — for the virus. Still, experts say he can’t rest easy and would need several more days of negative tests to feel secure after his possible exposure to Trump at Tuesday’s debate, where they stood 12 feet, 8 inches apart in an enclosed space. While some called for him to suspend campaign activities, the Biden campaign instead announced it was pausing all negative ads — and according to the Facebook ad database, buys mentioning Trump quickly went offline (although users may still see them for a few days as they phase out). He also called for unity, saying that “this cannot be a partisan moment” and that “we have to come together as a nation.”
2. Not Returning the Favor
The Trump campaign sent out an email titled “Lyin’ Obama” with the caption “He’s trying to rescue Joe’s failing campaign” at 6:07 p.m. on Friday, almost the exact time that Barack and Michelle Obama were at a fundraiser extending their best wishes for a speedy recovery for the Trump family. Tim Murtaugh, Trump’s campaign director of communications, later told reporters that there were no plans to pull negative ads, instead accusing Biden of using his Michigan speech to “attack the President repeatedly on Social Security, the economy and job creation.” Some Facebook ads running from the Donald J. Trump page as of late Friday included one that accused Biden of empowering rioters and another saying the Democrat had been taken over by the “EXTREME RADICAL LEFT.”
3. Debating the Debates
After joining the Obamas in Las Vegas on Friday, Sen. Kamala Harris traveled to Utah where she will remain through the vice presidential debate, to be held at the University of Utah on Wednesday. The Biden campaign requested 12 feet of space between the candidates, which has been approved by the Commission on President Debates. At the Cleveland debate, attendees were required to test negative before entering the facility — unless they were traveling with the candidate, in which case the campaigns had to vouch for a negative test in a kind of “honor system.” The Trump family refused to wear their masks inside during the debate, and 11 people who were part of the debate planning and setup have now tested positive. Going forward, it’s hard to imagine the next debate happening as planned on Oct. 15, and even the final debate is at risk, given that the scheduled date of Oct. 22 comes less than three weeks after Trump’s positive test.
In speaking with several undecided voters — a much smaller group this year than in the past — we found them unaffected by Trump’s diagnosis. Take Michelle O’Neal, of McLean, Virginia, who voted for Trump in 2016 but isn’t sure whether to do so again. “I figured sooner or later [he would catch it], since he was being so nonchalant about it and didn’t care,” she says. “I think it’s karma in a way. I don’t want anyone to get really sick, but I want him to feel it a little. This is kind of bad for older people … Find your compassion button, maybe if you have one somewhere deep in there.” That said, she adds: “I honestly didn't vote on his character. I like that he’s a fighter.”
New York Times columnist and former Buzzfeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith recently joined OZY’s CEO on The Carlos Watson Show to discuss Trump’s unpredictability and the media’s role. He says journalists should have learned from 2016 and be ready for whatever surprise hits this month. Watch to find out what this top politico tells his staffers about predicting a Trump race.
The idea that Trump will change course with regard to his COVID response is unlikely. But near-death experiences have a way of changing people. What if the president is in bad shape but re-emerges with a more compassionate, science-based outlook on the virus and a new tone? It happened to a degree for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. In a 2020 filled with shocking twists, this would be perhaps the most unlikely — and it could win him the election.
Both Johnson and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro boasted the highest approval ratings of their terms shortly after recovering from the virus. How does one explain this surge in popularity for leaders believed to have botched their response to the COVID-19 crisis? Contracting the disease helped Bolsonaro and Johnson squash the argument that their disconnected approach misfired with bystanders. Nations struggling against the pandemic had leaders who — whatever they might have done until then — were suffering alongside their citizens.
The only other world leader to have caught the coronavirus while running an election campaign was the Dominican Republic’s Luis Rodolfo Abinader — and he won with 53 percent of the vote in July. Before you start planning Trump’s second term, it’s worth considering that Abinader was already favored, and he was running as the challenger, critical of the government’s response to the crisis. So contracting the virus was a more helpful campaign narrative.
3. Tragedy in Burundi
It was officially a heart attack that killed Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza in June. But the 55-year-old is widely believed to have succumbed to side effects from the coronavirus, making him the only world leader to die so far from the virus.
On the train back from giving his Gettysburg Address in November 1863, Abraham Lincoln started to feel the symptoms: A nasty headache so bad he had to lie down. He was sick with smallpox for a month at least, and while he wasn’t on official quarantine, visitors were sparse in those weeks and actually banned during the worst of the disease in late November. Later analysis showed the president’s condition was far more serious than the public — or even Lincoln — knew, and it hit at a time far more perilous for America than now.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower was on the eighth hole of the golf course when he started complaining of indigestion, likely from a burger. Just 24 hours later, the American people were informed that their war-hero president was in an oxygen tent at Fitzsimons Army Hospital being treated by one of the best cardiologists in the country. And another 24 hours later, on Sept. 26, 1955, Wall Street went into a tailspin — with the stock market losing $14 billion in value. Eisenhower’s heart attack, however, was just one in a series of major illnesses the seemingly invincible leader would experience as president.
America’s shortest presidency, at precisely one month, belongs to Harrison. At his 1841 inauguration, Harrison tried to show off his virility by giving a two-hour speech without a coat, hat or gloves despite a cold snap. But recent scholarship suggests his death wasn’t a cautionary tale about dressing for the weather. University of Maryland School of Medicine researchers surmise that because Harrison didn’t start complaining about symptoms until three weeks after his inauguration, and because his abdominal problems were most severe, he likely died of gastroenteritis caused by contaminated drinking water, a common problem in those days — especially in the literal swamp that Washington was developed upon.
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Vice President Mike Pence, who has so far tested negative, would assume the office if Trump writes a letter to Congress acknowledging he has been incapacitated — say, if he needs to go on a ventilator. President Ronald Reagan handed power to George H.W. Bush in this way for eight hours in 1985 while Reagan underwent surgery, and George W. Bush briefly gave Dick Cheney power during the younger Bush’s colonoscopies. Pence, 61, could also assume power by a majority vote of the Cabinet under the 25th amendment if Trump were incapacitated but unable to say so. Once Trump recovers, he could then write a letter to Congress assuming his powers once again. (Pence and the Cabinet could contest a Trump comeback, in which case Congress would decide.) If Trump and Pence both are unable to perform their duties, next in line is Speaker Nancy Pelosi, 80, but that’s never been tested before and could spark a constitutional crisis if both the president and vice president were unable to serve.
2. Market Yo-Yo
The U.S. stock market plunged early Friday then bounced back a bit after Trump said he had mild symptoms and Biden tested negative. Though Biden is already the markets’ expected victor in November, Trump’s hospitalization and reports of more severe symptoms raise the specter of a rocky next few days in the markets — and more volatility is expected given America’s uncertain political future.
3. Masks Are Cool Again?
A possible silver lining: Increased mask-wearing from people who — like Trump — had seen face-covering as a symbol of the left, and anti-freedom. Experts say they expect more mask-wearing at least in the short term from Trump fans, which could help contain the spread of the virus. It remains to be seen whether the president himself will change his tune and start advocating for them and for mask mandates at the local and state level.
the world is watching
1. More Moscow Meddling
Russian President Vladimir Putin was quick to wish Trump a speedy recovery in a telegram, saying the U.S. president’s inherent “vitality” would see him through. But experts believe Moscow might use the political uncertainty caused by Trump’s illness to accelerate their online misinformation campaign in a bid to widen America’s fissures ahead of the Nov. 3 vote. Experts believe it’s unlikely that Russia — or other adversaries — will attempt any military move against the U.S.
China and the U.S. have been engaged in Top Gun-like maneuvers in the Taiwan Strait the past few weeks amid growing tensions over the future of the self-governing island that Beijing claims. If Trump is incapacitated for a prolonged period of time, China might look to test American support for Taiwan — though it likely won’t see this as a moment to attempt a forced takeover of the island. Perhaps that’s why the warmest message of support Trump has received after testing positive was from President Tsai Ing Wen of Taiwan (pictured), who referenced the U.S. leader’s own tweet announcing his illness to say: “Yes, we will get through this together.”
3. Iran Adventure?
A bruised Iran might see the political chaos in the U.S. — accentuated by Trump’s illness — to try and send a tough message to Washington, including by attacks through proxies on American installations and individuals in the Middle East and beyond. Tehran’s leadership will be aware of the risk that such a step could prove counterproductive. It could embolden Trump — even from a hospital bed — to order a military strike against top Iranian officials, like the assassination of Gen. Qassem Soleimani at the start of the year. But unlike most other nations — friends and adversaries alike — Iran has ominously not yet issued a formal statement on Trump’s positive test.