President Donald Trump and his wife, Melania, have tested positive for the coronavirus, an announcement which is bound to throw the Presidential race into a state of grave uncertainty, if not chaos. The novel coronavirus pandemic has killed more than two hundred thousand Americans and more than a million people worldwide. On Friday morning, at 12:54 a.m. Eastern time, Trump tweeted, “Tonight, @FLOTUS and I tested positive for covid-19. We will begin our quarantine and recovery process immediately. We will get through this TOGETHER!”
Trump’s physician, Sean Conley, issued a statement saying that Trump and the First Lady were both “well at this time.” Trump had reportedly been hoarse during the day on Thursday, but his circle ascribed that to the rigors of rallies and other public events. “Rest assured I expect the President to continue carrying out his duties without disruption while recovering,” Conley wrote, “and I will keep you updated on any future developments.”Read The New Yorker’s complete news coverage and analysis of the coronavirus pandemic.
From the very beginning of the pandemic, Trump has denied or diminished the seriousness of covid-19, from its initial outbreak in China to its spread to Europe and beyond. In interviews with Bob Woodward, for the journalist’s book “Rage,” Trump admitted that he well understood from advisers how lethal and fast-spreading the disease could be, but in public statements he downplayed the danger, saying repeatedly that the virus would disappear with the summer’s warm weather and that there was little to worry about. To the despair of the scientific and medical communities, which have uniformly said that the disease can be best contained if people wear protective masks and maintain a social distance, Trump has repeatedly flouted their advice and touted disreputable treatments. As recently as Tuesday’s Presidential debate, in Cleveland, Trump mocked his opponent, Joe Biden, for wearing masks and practicing social distancing. “I don’t wear masks like him,” Trump said sarcastically of Biden, at the debate. “Every time you see him, he’s got a mask. He could be speaking two hundred feet away from him, and he shows up with the biggest mask I’ve ever seen.”
covid-19 has proved particularly lethal for older people, especially those who are obese and have preëxisting conditions. Trump is seventy-four and overweight. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, eight out of ten covid-19-related deaths in the United States have been of people sixty-five and older. Trump’s doctors say that he is generally healthy—though, on November 16, 2019, Trump was taken to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, and Vice-President Mike Pence was reportedly placed on standby. The reasons for that hospital visit remain obscure. At one point, the President went out of his way to deny that he had suffered “mini-strokes.”
The news that Donald and Melania Trump had tested positive for the coronavirus broke in stages. On Thursday evening, the White House confirmed that Trump’s trusted aide Hope Hicks had contracted the virus, and for hours thereafter cable news networks played a clip of the President’s advisers, and then Trump himself, all unmasked, walking across the South Lawn of the White House, to board Marine One, the President’s helicopter; they were heading to a campaign rally in Minnesota. While that tape played in an eerie loop, commentators and doctors described just how perilous it was for people to be in such close proximity to one another while not wearing masks. At political rallies across the country, and on the Republican National Convention’s climactic night, at which the President delivered his speech accepting the Republican Party’s Presidential nomination, Trump and the great majority of his supporters flouted wearing masks, which he has called a sign of “weakness.” At a rally in Dayton, last month, Trump said that the virus affects “virtually nobody.”
After the news became public that Hicks had the virus, Trump told the Fox News host Sean Hannity, “When soldiers and law enforcement comes up to her, you know, she wants to treat them great. Not say, ‘Stay away, I can’t get near you.’ It’s a very, very tough disease.” Hours later, after most people in Washington and on the East Coast had gone to bed, the President issued his tweet about his own diagnosis.
In the coming days, it is likely that commentators will respond to the demands of both decency and a sincere desire to wish anyone with a serious illness well and a quick recovery. They will also assess the perils ahead. The uncertainties range from whether the President’s condition becomes such that, under the Twenty-fifth Amendment, his powers need to be transferred to his Vice-President, Mike Pence, to what will happen in the Presidential race. The Twenty-fifth Amendment, which was ratified in 1967, was invoked most recently by George W. Bush, in 2002 and 2007, when he underwent colonoscopies; he briefly handed over power in those instances to his Vice-President, Dick Cheney.
In polls, Biden leads Trump nationally and in many battleground states, and in recent weeks the President has responded to his political predicament with incendiary attacks on his opponent, conspiracy theories about the fairness of the ballot, and unsubtle calls to his most dangerous followers—such as the Proud Boys, a far-right militia group—to “stand back and stand by.” Punctuating it all is his chilling refusal to say that he would definitely accept the results of the election and accede to a peaceful transfer of power—“we’ll see what happens” is a common statement.
If both Trump and Pence were to be incapacitated, the rules of succession in the U.S. Constitution dictate that the Speaker of the House is next in line to take over the powers of the Presidency. The Speaker, of course, is a Democrat and Trump’s political adversary, Nancy Pelosi. Trump has repeatedly derided Pelosi, and the relationship between the two has grown so poisonous that they have not had any serious contact in months.
For some time, commentators have routinely discussed what the October surprise would be. It was assumed that an autumn drama would entail the President challenging the legitimacy of the ballot, and he has done that repeatedly. At the debate, he retailed false and exaggerated stories about mail-in ballots, all in a seeming effort to sow confusion and cast doubt on a contest that he appears to be losing. But now that October surprise is here, and it involves something no less alarming—the state of the President’s health and that of his wife and senior advisers, and what it all will mean for the governance of the United States, a nation that has been suffering multiple crises for so many months. In a speech that he delivered virtually on Thursday night, for the seventy-fifth annual Al Smith dinner, the President said, “I just want to say that the end of the pandemic is in sight, and next year will be one of the greatest years in the history of our country.”