3 big questions about Trump's coronavirus diagnosis
The president is ill. His rival may have also been exposed. We're a month away from a monumental election. America is in uncharted territory.
The president has COVID-19.
In a series of announcements and tweets on Thursday night, President Trump confirmed first that his advisor Hope Hicks had tested positive for the coronavirus and that he would be quarantining — and then, a few hours later, that he and the first lady had also tested positive.
"We will begin our quarantine and recovery process immediately," he wrote on Twitter. "We will get through this TOGETHER!"
The announcement, while shocking, was hardly a surprise. The president has by and large refused to wear a mask in public — a measure most experts say is among the most effective countermeasures to prevent the spread of the virus — and he has increasingly insisted on holding large-scale rallies and campaign events with thousands of attendees, many of whom also didn't wear masks or socially distance. At Tuesday night's presidential debate, much of his entourage reportedly didn't wear masks, either. One reporter who visited the White House in August called it a "petri dish" for the illness.
But there are a million questions to be asked and answered about how this news affects the governance of the United States, the direction of the presidential campaign, and even the future of America's so-far dismal response to the pandemic:
Is it time to dust off the 25th Amendment again? During the early stages of Trump's presidency, more than a few observers expressed hope that he might be removed from office using the 25th Amendment, which governs scenarios of how and why the powers of the presidency can be passed to the vice president. But that idea relied on the possibility of a majority of Trump's own Cabinet declaring him unfit for duty — a possibility that faded over the years as the president increasingly installed loyalists atop executive branch agencies.
The amendment wasn't really designed to be used to remove a bad president. But it is designed to ensure the smooth governance of this country if the president is incapacitated: It was passed in the aftermath of John F. Kennedy's assassination, when officials became terrified that a badly injured president might leave the White House in limbo for an extended period of time. While Trump will no doubt get the very best medical care this country can furnish, the truth remains that he is a septuagenarian and that COVID-19 has taken a high toll on the elderly. It is very easy to imagine scenarios well short of death in which it might be appropriate — even necessary — to invoke the amendment and transfer the powers of the presidency, perhaps temporarily to Vice President Mike Pence.
We're not there yet, obviously. But Pence and other senior White House officials should be prepared.
Will the the remaining presidential debates be canceled? Only two nights before announcing he had COVID-19, Trump spent 90 minutes in a room with former Vice President Joe Biden, his opponent in November's election, and spent much of the time shouting. Even though the two men remained distanced throughout the evening, there is a real possibility that Biden was exposed to the virus. America is in unprecedented territory, then, where the health of the two contenders for its highest office may be in danger at the same time. There is a potential for chaos.
The ugliness of Tuesday's debate prompted a push to cancel the remaining debates entirely — an idea that both candidates resisted, at least publicly. If Trump develops no symptoms, it's possible he could emerge from a 14-day quarantine just in time for the scheduled October 15 meeting. But if the campaigns and debate officials looked at this mess and decided the potential danger to the candidates and their teams is just not worth it, that would be entirely justifiable.
Will reality about the coronavirus finally set in for Trump and his supporters? Since the beginning of the pandemic, Trump has tried to downplay the virus and its effects, or insisted that it will merely go away on its own soon. Many of his constituents seem to believe the pandemic is a hoax. It is part of the reason 200,000 Americans have died from the virus.
Trump has long been a practitioner of magical thinking, but at this moment he cannot deny the essential reality of having the virus, nor what that will mean for his own life and work for at least the next few weeks. It is late in the day for Trump to take the virus seriously. Now he is literally living with the consequences of his own failure to effectively confront the pandemic. Will he take his own illness seriously? In a contest between reality and fantasy, reality almost always wins.
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