Once Donald Trump, who famously said he likes to downplay COVID-related issues, agreed to check into Walter Reed, Trump’s health crisis became all too real. It may be a while yet before we know how real. Truth, after all, is predictably the first casualty of a presidential health crisis. And when Trump’s doctor held a morning news conference Saturday, he dodged the more pressing questions about Trump’s timeline and his health while stressing only good news.
Meanwhile, a source close to the president — a source that turned out to be White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows — said that the next 48 hours are critical in assessing how serious Trump’s case might be. We know Trump has some problematic underlying health and age issues that put him at particular risk. And as I write this, Trump has tweeted only once since entering the hospital.
The COVID assault on the White House has become increasingly clear, as has the likeliness of a super-spreader effect. I wonder what the COVID truthers are thinking now. I wonder what the anti-science people are thinking now.
It wasn’t just the president or the first lady who contracted the virus following the disclosure — reported by Bloomberg News — that close presidential adviser Hope Hicks had tested positive. It looks as if the mask-free, social-distancing-free Rose Garden introduction of Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett — who has already survived her own bout with COVID — may have been an origin event for many in attendance. Two senators, Mike Lee and Thom Tillis, who are both on the Senate Judiciary Committee prepared to confirm Barrett, tested positive, putting the hearings in question. So did a third senator, Ron Johnson, who wasn’t there. Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien has tested positive as have 11 Trump staffers from the Cleveland debate.
Notre Dame President Rev. John Jenkins and former presidential aide Kellyanne Conway were at Barrett’s introduction, and both contracted the virus. Chris Christie just announced he is positive. RNC chair Ronna McDaniel is positive. We can expect more. This outbreak is a loud warning that COVID numbers are again climbing across much of the country and can strike anywhere, even in the Oval Office.
Jenkins would say later that those in attendance had all been tested and gotten a negative result, after which they were told it was OK to remove their masks and to interact with others. He has said he regretted following that advice. And we now know that Trump attended a fundraiser even after he became aware of Hicks’ positive test. The contact tracing here — which often goes undone — is pivotal, not that it means much to Attorney General Bill Barr, who, after receiving a negative test, refused to follow CDC guidelines and self-quarantine, making himself just one more science denier.
In these deeply political times, as we approach the election that nearly everyone agrees actually is the most important of our lifetimes, we can expect no better. A friend suggested, tongue firmly in cheek, that he expects Trump to emerge from his recovery much as Ebeneezer Scrooge emerged from his Christmas Eve nightmare. I doubt Trump takes in Scrooge’s message, but maybe the rest of us could learn something from the ghost of an America yet to come, which may look even more worrisome than America today.
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And yet on Friday morning, Meadows, who has, of course, been in close contract with Trump, addressed the media without wearing a mask. Of course, he did. That Meadows wouldn’t wear a mask is disgraceful, but hardly surprising. That three reporters who cover Trump have contracted the virus is also sadly predictable. And as the Washington Post reported, Jared Kushner still chose to work at the White House Friday.
Only hours before Trump announced he had tested positive, he sent a video message to a Republican dinner claiming that the end of the pandemic was in sight. At the debate earlier in the week, Trump had insisted that Democratic governors weren’t opening their states as fast as they should because they wanted to see Trump lose. As he said, “You got to open these states up. It’s not fair!” The question of fairness, and not necessarily as Trump would define it, is now an open question.
This pandemic has, sadly, always been about politics. Bob Woodward’s book, with the accompanying tapes, proved that much, if anyone still had doubts. The politics of the pandemic is why the American response has been so remarkably feeble, with Trump’s overriding fear of an economic collapse overriding his concerns about American safety. That’s why it’s so stunning that Trump — the most virus-protected person in American — should get hit by the virus. It’s easy enough to say the White House didn’t protect him, as some have said. The truth is, he refused to protect himself. No one else is holding large rallies during a pandemic, endangering himself and anyone who showed up. And only Trump would mock Biden for not doing the same.
So it’s stunning and it’s also predictable. As my friend Charlie Pierce tweeted, if you put a virus on the table in Act One …
If Trump gets the virus, if Melania Trump gets the virus, if Hope Hicks gets the virus, if senators get the virus, that means anyone can get the virus. Fortunately, Joe Biden’s campaign announced that Biden has tested negative, although a single negative test offers little certainty. Biden has, meanwhile, taken down all negative ads and faces the question whether he should continue to campaign.
And you can fairly ask the question, if Bloomberg News hadn’t learned that Hicks, among Trump’s closest aides, had tested positive, would we even know that Trump had the virus? Nearly every other COVID case that has shown up in and around the White House has had to be uncovered by reporters.
As I write this, it’s 31 days before Election Day. Trump’s health crisis, in the final stretch of the campaign, is the October surprise that nobody wanted. But it will remain political. Just as Reagan’s health did. And JFK’s. And Ike’s. And FDR’s. And Wilson’s. It’s the nature of the game. But this game, I think we have to agree, is a little bit different.
We have a president who brazenly dismissed the virus, who basically dared the virus to try to attack him, who didn’t wear a mask because, you remember, he didn’t think it looked presidential, who mocked Biden as a weak-kneed do-gooder for always wearing a mask, as if Biden weren’t 77 years old and in the midst of a pandemic that has killed at least 208,000 Americans and more than a million around the world.
Only in Trump’s America could the wearing of a mask during a pandemic become a loyalty test. This is where we are. It can’t be where we want to be.
It’s hard not to look at Trump’s positive test as karma of a kind, but we should resist the notion. We have to resist, unless that’s who we want to be in a post-Trump America. Yes, he mocked Hillary Clinton when she got pneumonia during the 2016 campaign. Yes, he suggests Biden has dementia. Yes, he mocked a reporter’s disability. Yes, he withheld information from Americans that could have saved tens of thousands of lives. Yes, he is a terrible person.
But whatever Trump has done wrong, however long the list, however you feel about him, we should be rooting for his recovery because, if nothing else, America rising above this moment is, in large part, what this election is about. Under any other president, the nation would have rallied to his cause in fighting the pandemic. We need someone, anyone, in the White House who could do at least that much.
In that case, we can hope that seeing Trump affected means we reject the notion that 200,000 American deaths is not such a big deal. And we should say that just because coronavirus fatigue has set in, we understand that the virus has no interest in our fatigue. There could be a vaccine, but, in the best case, it wouldn’t reach people like you or me until at least midway through next year. Failing to do the simple and obvious things — wearing a mask, socially distancing, caring that others might be infected — would leave us in a far worse place than we are today. Some, I assume, will get that lesson. I don’t expect Trump to get it. I do expect him to get far better medical treatment than the 200,000 people who have died.
And I worry that when there is finally a scientifically proven vaccine — with the proof coming from unpressured scientists — that anti-Trumpers will join anti-vaxxers in refusing to take the vaccine. At this moment, we still have more than 40,000 cases and around 700 deaths every day, just as we hit flu season when the pandemic may well grow more deadly. Restoring faith in government is just one more reason, in a long list of reasons, why Trump must be beaten, even as the country prepares for violence on Election Day. Stand back and stand by?
Personally, I hope Trump gets better quickly, that he is able to complete his presidential campaign and that he loses by a large margin and that Biden is able to rally the country around the idea that reaching a new normalcy is the nation’s most important goal. When Trump contracted the virus, it was a loud warning that normalcy, like the end of the pandemic, is still well beyond our reach.
Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.
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