By David Siders and Charlie Mahtesian 10/2/20
Donald Trump had done everything possible to shift the focus of the presidential campaign away from his handling of the coronavirus.
His own infection now ensures that he can’t – pulling Trump off the road 32 days before the election, throwing debates into question and fixing the public attention’s more squarely than ever on a pandemic dragging down his prospects for a second term.
A president who once seemed impervious to October surprises is suddenly confronting one big enough to alter the outcome of the election. “The campaign as we knew it is over,” said Andrew Feldman, a Democratic strategist in Washington. “This is the worst nightmare for the Trump campaign.”
Practically speaking, Trump’s announcement early Friday that he tested positive for the coronavirus will immediately remove him from in-person campaigning, though for how long is unclear. Sean Conley, Trump's physician, said in a memo that Trump and First Lady Melania Trump, who also tested positive, “plan to remain at home within the White House during their convalescence,” and the White House removed a planned campaign rally on Friday night in Florida from Trump’s daily schedule.
Trump’s inability to hold rallies, even for a brief period, will hobble a campaign that has defined itself by its large, in-person gatherings, even during the pandemic. The second presidential debate, now scheduled for Oct. 15, is in doubt. And Trump’s positive test will heighten scrutiny of the vice presidential debate scheduled for next week.
Officials with the Commission on Presidential Debates declined to comment on what the president’s diagnosis means for the schedule and format of upcoming forums. The second of three scheduled presidential debates is slated for Oct. 15 in Miami.
The more significant problem for Trump is that, now Covid-positive, it will prove almost impossible for him to steer public attention away from his biggest political liability. Americans disapprove of Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic by a wide margin. And cable news is going wall-to-wall with coverage of that — not U.S. Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, mail-in balloting or Trump’s latest outrage.
It is a perilous way to finish the campaign for a candidate already trailing in the polls. In the most conspicuous way imaginable, the positive test publicly undermines so much of Trump’s rhetoric about the virus — from his faith in hydroxychloroquine to his cavalier pronouncements about a vaccine and his dismissal of Covid-19 as a disease that “affects virtually nobody.”
It was just this week, during the first presidential debate, that Trump mocked Biden for his mask-wearing, saying, “Every time you see him, he’s got a mask.”
Trump’s announcement of his positive test undercuts constant GOP criticism of Biden’s decision to limit his own public appearances and choice to cloister for stretches at his home in Delaware. It also diminishes the effectiveness of Republican charges that Biden’s cautious approach to travel is primarily designed to shield the 77-year-old Democratic nominee from public scrutiny.
Trump’s illness, one Republican campaign consultant who worked in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush White Houses predicted, will be viewed as validating “Biden hiding out in [a] bunker for preventative reasons,” and not, as Republicans had maintained, the “onset of dementia.”
Rob Stutzman, a Republican political strategist who has been critical of Trump, described it as a “devastating blow” to the Trump campaign, “the ultimate rebuke to his callous mishandling of Covid.”
The full extent of the political fallout is unclear. If Trump becomes seriously ill, it stands to underscore Democratic arguments about his coronavirus leadership and mar the strong-man image he assiduously cultivates. If the physical consequences are less severe, he might find an opportunity to downplay the seriousness of the disease. An illness could also serve to humanize one of the coarsest presidents in history.
In either scenario, the positive test will put enormous pressure on a White House known for its secrecy, chaotic internal operations and loose relationship with the truth to avoid any misstep or public confusion that could affect the campaign.
There was uncertainty Friday within the president’s political orbit about what this means for his re-election prospects. Some White House aides were eager for the president to go on TV and address the nation.
"Folks are kind of like, ‘What now? What does this mean for what we're trying to do here with 32 days left?‘" said a senior Trump campaign official. "I don't want to say this hit us by surprise because we knew the risks. [Trump] wanted to campaign and be out there with the people, so we tailored the campaign to the president's wishes. This definitely changes our plans, though."
Four years ago this month, Trump weathered both the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape and the Obama administration’s assertion that Russia was meddling in the election. The implications of those events were widely overestimated.
“Something upends the campaign every day and it is not yet possible to see how this plays out,” said Mathew Littman, a Democratic strategist and former Biden speechwriter. “I hope Trump gets healthy and then loses by a lot. Trump was already in deep trouble in this campaign with no real plan to turn this around.”
But it is also more than that, with potential health, national security and financial implications that will reverberate beyond the campaign. International financial markets were shaken overnight.
“This is a geopolitical event,” Stutzman said. “Our enemies are watching. If he falls gravely ill, the chaos could multiply … If Americans of any political stripe reflect on this news, they should be shaken.”
Trump is overweight and, at 74, at higher risk for severe illness. But Conley said in his memo that Trump and the first lady are “both well at this time." The likelihood, doctors said, is that he will recover.
Robert O'Brien, the president's top aide on foreign policy, returned to the White House in August after a mild case of Covid-19. U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro also tested positive – in Bolsonaro’s case, like Trump’s, after long downplaying the virus’ severity.
But even the possibility that Trump might become seriously ill had strategists in both parties discussing the potential implications of succession or the 25th Amendment, under which Trump, if medically incapacitated, could transfer power temporarily to Vice President Mike Pence.
Pence has tested negative for Covid-19, his spokesperson said Friday, hours after the president revealed he had contracted the coronavirus.
One Republican strategist said in a text message early Friday that the White House should “keep Pence in one of those giant plastic bubbles,” attaching an image of a man inside an inflatable ball.
For Biden, the attention that Trump’s positive test will foist on the president’s handling of the virus was a stroke of political fortune. If Trump is confined to the White House, one Democratic strategist said, Biden will benefit from having “the whole country to himself” to campaign.
But Biden will also likely have to tread carefully to avoid appearing insensitive. It is hard to imagine him repeating the personal criticism he leveled at Trump during the debate this week, for example, when he said more people would die from Covid-19 unless Trump got “a lot smarter, a lot quicker.”
A Biden spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment overnight. But the former vice president tweeted Friday morning, “Jill and I send our thoughts to President Trump and First Lady Melania Trump for a swift recovery. We will continue to pray for the health and safety of the president and his family.“
Alex Isenstadt and Gabby Orr contributed to this report.