At the end of what was already a very long week even by his standards, President Trump announced on Friday morning that he and the first lady had tested positive for COVID-19. This was followed later by reports that Sen. Mike Lee of Utah had also become infected with the virus, and that Trump was being taken to Walter Reed Medical Center for precautionary reasons.
With 32 days until the election, another $2.2 trillion stimulus bill that includes direct payments of $1200 to Americans recently passed by the House and awaiting a vote in the Senate, and the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett assured by a slim majority in the upper chamber, the consequences of Friday's news are likely to be wide-ranging.
1. The Trump campaign is put on ice
The president's travel plans have been suspended indefinitely, and all previously scheduled campaign events either canceled or shifted to a virtual format. It is difficult to imagine Trump returning to the campaign trail before the middle of October, when his second debate with Joe Biden was supposed to take place. Even before the announcement of Trump's positive test result, supporters of both candidates were suggesting that the first meeting between the two men should be the last. This seems much more likely now.
2. Biden goes solo
Despite what some Democrats proposed initially (for reasons utterly mysterious to those of us who assume that the older of our two political parties exists to win elections), it does not appear that the former vice president has any plans to step away from active campaigning or to withdraw television and online advertisements even on a temporary basis. Why would he? Trump's positive test is the best illustration of a point Biden has been making over and over again on the campaign trail: Trump and his administration are either clueless, careless, or both.
3. SCOTUS or stimulus?
Trump's health is unlikely to prevent him from signing a new relief bill into law. But the legislation could end up failing to reach his desk anyway if Mitch McConnell decides not to reconvene the Senate next week in the hope of avoiding further infections and allowing Lee, a member of the judiciary committee, to recover from his own illness in time for a vote on Barrett's nomination to the Supreme Court. Prioritizing this nomination above recovery funding to a wide variety of businesses and direct payments to Americans will probably not play well except with hardcore social conservatives. Don't count on Democrats being smart enough to run with this narrative effectively, though.
4. Decision time
As I suggested previously, Trump appears to be faced with a choice between trying to rally the nation in support of her weakened president at a time of acute national crisis or blowing off his diagnosis as something that doesn't really matter. The former seems to be at odds with his instincts; it would also seem to involve conceding that everything he said during the last debate and in his own television advertising about his administration's competence during the last seven or so months has been in bad faith. Either the virus is very serious and he had himself been taking it seriously until this unfortunate little snafu, or the whole thing has (as many, indeed probably a majority of his supporters believe) the whole thing has been overblown and his own swift recovery after a week or so of sneezing is proof of why we need to open our schools, eliminate mask mandates, and start packing our football stadiums.
My guess is that for good or ill Trump attempts to do both at once, basking in the sympathy of ordinary citizens and world leaders concerned for his health (and the comparative restraint of at least some of his Democratic critics) while insisting that he beat the Chinese virus like a gong.