What Trump’s Positive Coronavirus Test Means for the Presidential Campaign

In 1981, after Ronald Reagan was shot by John Hinckley, Jr., the Secretary of State, Alexander Haig, gave an infamous press conference at the White House in which, to a roomful of clamoring reporters and a television audience of millions, he shakily, and erroneously, declared himself the acting President. “I am in control here,” Haig said. In the early hours of Friday morning, after Donald Trump tweeted out that he and his wife had tested positive for the coronavirus, there was no singular Haig-like figure, but, in keeping with our atomized age, Twitter exploded, people suddenly channelling their own inner Haig, trying to meet a dangerous, destabilizing national situation with whatever personal reaction they believed the moment demanded. “Holy shit” was a popular choice. The reality is that for as much as the country’s circumstances before Thursday night were unprecedented—a pandemic raging, hundreds of thousands dead, tens of millions out of work, family and friends isolated from one another, protests and political violence in the streets, businesses big and small bleeding cash, wildfires and hurricanes battering towns and cities, and the integrity of the upcoming election under attack by the President—there is even less precedent for them now.

On Friday morning, reporters were beginning to fill in some details. According to the Times, Hope Hicks, one of Trump’s closest advisers, began experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 while at a Trump campaign rally in Minnesota, on Wednesday. (A day earlier, Hicks had accompanied Trump to his debate with Joe Biden, in Ohio.) After Trump gave a shorter-than-usual speech, Hicks quarantined in a cabin separate from the rest of the passengers on the flight home on Air Force One. “She exited from the back of the plane,” the Times noted, “as opposed to the front.”

On Thursday, she tested positive, but the White House made no public announcement about Hicks’s situation. Instead, Trump flew to New Jersey to attend a fund-raiser and give a speech, in which he said, “The end of the pandemic is in sight.” He had a full day of public events scheduled for Friday, too, including a rally in Florida. But, on Thursday evening, Bloomberg News reported on Hicks’s diagnosis; by the end of the night, Trump was acknowledging, in an interview with Fox News’s Sean Hannity, that he was waiting on test results. Shortly after 1 A.M., Trump tweeted that both he and the First Lady, Melania Trump, had tested positive. It’s not clear how or where or when the Trumps were infected, or how widespread the virus may be in the White House. “He’ll be O.K., the doctor’s optimistic,” a White House official told NPR. “He’ll get treatment. We’re in a pretty good place to treat this.” The official added, perhaps remembering Haig, “From a continuity standpoint—listen, we’ll be fine, we’ll figure out a way to do it.” According to NPR, the White House is planning for Trump to be under quarantine for as long as fourteen days. For now, the President’s in-person Friday events have been cancelled, although he is still scheduled to host a phone call on “COVID-19 support to vulnerable seniors.”

If the White House sticks to that timeline, it means that, at least for half the time remaining before Election Day, Trump will have to suspend the campaign rallies that he had been holding regularly. For the past five years, these rallies have been where Trump demonstrates his mythic connection with his base. Lately, they were also often held over the protests of local officials in various states, who viewed them as potential public-health risks. Have we seen the last of them? Trump’s quarantine may also mean the cancellation or postponement of the second debate between Trump and Biden, which is scheduled for October 15th.

The larger question is what this development means for Trump’s hopes for reëlection, or at least his ability to control and influence what chances he has left, as he is trailing Biden in both the polls and in fund-raising. In recent weeks, as the election models all started to suggest the overwhelming probability of a Biden victory, one common caution has been that unforeseen events are just that, unforeseen, and that elections tend to turn near their end. Just this week, we’ve had what feels like a decade’s worth of “October surprises”: the Times’ bombshell exposé on Trump’s taxes; Trump’s belligerent debate performance, in which he declined to denounce white supremacy; audio tapes of Melania Trump bemoaning as personal headaches the facts of separated migrant families and White House Christmas decorations; the former Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale’s detention by law enforcement after an altercation with his wife; and revelations about the Trump campaign aide Kimberly Guilfoyle’s alleged harassment of an assistant during her time at Fox News. Trump’s positive test is an enormous unforeseen event, but to the extent that his reëlection campaign has had a strategy these past few months, it has been to insist that the coronavirus crisis was ending; that he had done a great job in combating it; and that, in any case, it was not (or had not been) a big deal. His refusal to acknowledge the scale of the pain and suffering in the country had left him unable to muster patriotic praise for the victims, or for the doctors, nurses, and other essential workers who have risked their lives since March to help others. It was a campaign of negation—and now he’s tested positive.

Much could change in the next few days. Trump could experience a relatively mild course of infection—easily carrying out his duties in quarantine—or his case may quickly take a turn for the worse. “We will get through this TOGETHER!” Trump tweeted on Friday morning. This is the kind of perfunctory sentiment you might have expected from a President in March. Trump could only think to deploy it now, when he himself was a victim. Which “this” was he referring to?

There are questions for Biden, too. The former Vice-President spent ninety minutes on Tuesday night standing a few feet from Trump as he ranted and raved during the debate. Was Trump contagious then? Biden’s team has already asked a reporter who travelled on Air Force One on Wednesday not to travel with the Democratic campaign on a planned swing through Michigan on Friday, and reports indicate that Biden plans to take a coronavirus test. Meanwhile, election-law professors—the kinds of people who have lately been discussing the possibilities of a drawn-out or contested election next month—are bringing up the murky rules that would govern a scenario in which either of the major parties was forced to replace a Presidential candidate at the last minute. Voting has already begun in a number of states, and millions of Americans have already cast their ballots. The election is already here. The President has contracted the life-threatening virus he has spent the better part of a year downplaying, lying about, and stoking division over. The questions will likely outnumber the answers for some time to come.

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