President Trump has COVID-19. What happens now?

How his diagnosis might shape the weeks to come

Trump in Ohio
(Image credit: Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images)

Early on Friday morning, President Trump announced via Twitter that he and the first lady had tested positive for COVID-19. His tweet came only hours after it was reported that one of his advisers, Hope Hicks, had become infected with the virus.

Trump's illness is an astonishing development at the end of the most bizarre presidential campaign in modern history. It will almost certainly prevent him from traveling the country in the waning days of a contest that will be decided a month from now. It will also likely mean the cancelation of two remaining scheduled presidential debates, likely to the disappointment of no one in particular. It is unclear whether Trump is experiencing any symptoms, though Sean Conley, his doctor, described him on Friday morning as feeling "well."

What should we expect in the days to come? Will Trump give an address to the nation on his condition from the White House, where he and his wife are expected to remain in isolation for the foreseeable future? What will his supporters say if he decides to suspend virtually all campaign activity — or, more to the point, if he is forced to do so because his health worsens? Is there any chance that he will remove himself from the top of the Republican ticket, setting up Vice President Mike Pence for what would almost certainly be an abject defeat?

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All of these questions lead effortlessly to one that is more fundamental: How was this allowed to happen? Trump spent much of Tuesday night arguing that his imposition of travel restrictions at the beginning of the year saved hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of American lives. Whatever his supporters believe and his own conduct has hinted at times, he has remained at least formally committed to the idea that the virus is the most serious public health crisis in a century, and that his administration has controlled it more effectively than his opponent would have done. Regardless of how concerned he is about his own chances of becoming seriously ill or worse, he and his staff should have taken every imaginable precaution to prevent this.

As things stand, there seem to be only two options available to Trump in the remaining 31 days of this campaign. The first is to plead for the sympathy of the American people, an unfamiliar position for a president who has always felt most comfortable with the rhetoric of strength and power. The second and more interesting gambit would involve publicly taking the position that polling suggests a sizeable number of his supporters already hold — namely, that he, like the vast majority of those infected with a virus, will recover. He could leave the White House in 10 days or even earlier and use the time that remains to him to make an all-out push for the skeptic vote, campaigning against school closings, mask mandates, empty stadiums, restaurant capacity restrictions, and other measures. This was always seemingly the most natural path for him to take, but for a number of reasons it seems unlikely, especially at this late stage, chief among them the risk of massive defections from seated Republican politicians.

Which is why instead I expect that Trump will end the campaign as he began it, with an incomprehensible two-faced position on the virus that he claims to have under such tight control that he and the first lady have now become infected with it on the eve of a general election.

A senescent emperor addicted to quack therapies contracts a plague that originated far away in the land of his greatest enemies, amid jeers and cries of joy from half of his subjects, who despise him, and a curious admixture of support and shrugs from the rest, who must decide whether to pray for his life or laugh in the face of danger. All of this reads like the plot of one of the later, weirder Dune sequels. But this is America in 2020.

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Matthew Walther

Matthew Walther is a national correspondent at The Week. His work has also appeared in First Things, The Spectator of London, The Catholic Herald, National Review, and other publications. He is currently writing a biography of the Rev. Montague Summers. He is also a Robert Novak Journalism Fellow.