Will Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis change anything? Or everything?

Why We Wrote This

As the nation confronts perhaps the most jarring October surprise in history, it could raise new questions about the U.S. electoral system’s ability to navigate and absorb shocks.

Joshua Roberts/Reuters
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany speaks to the media after U.S. President Donald Trump announced that he and first lady Melania Trump have both tested positive for the coronavirus disease in Washington, Oct. 2, 2020.

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An election year like no other has taken its sharpest turn yet, with President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump testing positive for COVID-19.

The implications of the president’s diagnosis span wide, from national security to the economy to public safety to the election itself. An onslaught of false information, some designed to mislead, is already circulating on the internet. Among some Americans, the president’s diagnosis was immediately dismissed as a lie.

Even more important may be the questions of governance that arise when the president of the United States faces a serious physical challenge. 

In a larger sense, it’s a reminder of the norm-breaking nature of this presidency. Mr. Trump’s frequent refusal to wear a mask in public – and his mockery of Mr. Biden for wearing one – may be a metaphor for his presidency writ large, reflecting the president’s willingness to take risks and dismiss expert advice.

Still this moment, just 32 days before the Nov. 3 election, presents an opportunity to pause and reflect – and to rise, if possible, above politics. 

“[S]chadenfreude is never admirable,” tweets Pete Wehner, a veteran of Republican administrations. “Appealing to better angels is.” 

An election year like no other has taken its sharpest turn yet, with President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump testing positive for COVID-19.

On Friday, the president was set to go to Walter Reed Medical Center, out of what the White House said was an abundance of caution. Mr. Trump has canceled all travel for the coming days, while his campaign events have moved online for now.

Well wishes from both sides of the aisle and world leaders have poured forth. In a tweet, Democratic nominee Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, offered their support to the Trumps early Friday. 

“We will continue to pray for the health and safety of the president and his family,” they said. Both Bidens have tested negative.

Perhaps this moment, just 32 days before the Nov. 3 election, presents an opportunity to pause and reflect – and to rise, if possible, above politics. 

“[S]chadenfreude is never admirable,” tweets Pete Wehner, a veteran of Republican administrations. “Appealing to better angels is.” 

Still, the latest White House COVID-19 crisis is a reminder of the norm-breaking nature of this presidency. Mr. Trump’s frequent refusal to wear a mask in public – and his mockery of Mr. Biden for wearing one – may be a metaphor for his presidency writ large, reflecting the president’s willingness to take risks and dismiss expert advice. Even now, although White House staffers have stepped up their use of masks, some top officials still aren’t wearing them in public. 

Leah Millis/Reuters
U.S. President Donald Trump waves to media after returning on Air Force One from a campaign rally in Minnesota, Oct. 1, 2020. President Trump announced early on Oct. 2 that he tested positive for the coronavirus disease.

The campaign itself won’t stop, even in the coming days. Fundraising, strategizing, and events continue – with Mr. Biden on Friday traveling to Michigan. Vice President Mike Pence, who has tested negative for the virus, is planning to continue to campaign in person. 

The vice presidential debate is so far still on for Oct. 7 – and is likely to get more than usual scrutiny, given that it will feature the running mates of the two oldest presidential nominees in U.S. history. The future of the remaining two presidential debates, scheduled for Oct. 15 and 22, remains uncertain.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said Friday he plans to press ahead with the Supreme Court nomination hearings for Judge Amy Coney Barrett, set to start Oct. 12. One member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, announced Friday that he has tested positive and plans to isolate for 10 days before returning to Washington for the hearings.

Even more important may be the questions of governance that arise when the president of the United States faces a serious physical challenge.

The American system has built-in backups. The vice president is standing by, empowered to take over the president’s duties in the event he becomes incapacitated. 

But the implications of the president’s diagnosis span wide, from national security to the economy to public safety to the election itself. Mr. Trump’s team is on the lookout for foreign adversaries seeking to exploit the situation. An onslaught of false information, some designed to mislead, is already circulating on the internet. Among some Americans, the president’s diagnosis was immediately dismissed as a lie. Others began speculating that the White House was downplaying the severity of Mr. Trump’s condition.

“It’s as if a nuclear information bomb exploded on social media,” Clint Watts, a former FBI special agent and expert on influence operations, tells The Washington Post.

My colleague Peter Grier wrote in a series of articles that Mr. Trump has a knack for exploiting the cracks in the American system of governance, aided by long-building cultural and political trends. As the nation confronts perhaps the most jarring October surprise in history, it could raise new questions about the U.S. electoral system’s ability to navigate and absorb shocks.

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