How a president and pandemic intertwined

Anthony Peltier/AP
President Donald Trump drives past supporters gathered outside Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, on Sunday, Oct. 4, 2020. Some other U.S. presidencies in the past have downplayed experiences of ill health for the nation's chief executive.

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Throughout U.S. history presidents have downplayed ill health, sometimes to the point of concealing debilitating issues from the public. Woodrow Wilson suffered a severe stroke in 1919 and was virtually incapacitated for the remainder of his second term. Ronald Reagan was in much worse shape following an assassination attempt in 1981 than voters realized at the time.

Now, much more is known about the state of presidential health in real time, says John Fortier, director of government studies at the Bipartisan Policy Center. But realistically this transparency can only go so far. Much is still based on trust – and trust in Trump communications among many reporters remains low, given the administration’s past misstatements.

Why We Wrote This

The president’s handling of his own health struggle has rapidly become an illustration of his government’s approach to managing a national crisis. How will history view it?

As a matter of policy, the U.S. government would not want adversaries to know too much if a president is physically weakened. As a matter of politics, the current administration would want to project an image of as much strength as possible with the election weeks away.

But when a future historian addresses how the wealthiest nation on earth bungled its response to the coronavirus they could do worse than use the president’s personal experience as a lens through which to view what went wrong – and, perhaps, what went right.

President Donald Trump’s handling of his coronavirus diagnosis has been characterized by a reluctance to release key facts, an aggressive approach to new treatments, public appearances meant to convey vigor, and a relentless insistence that things are on the upswing and normality is only a short distance away. 

In other words, it is very like the way President Trump has dealt with the coronavirus pandemic as a whole since it first took hold in the United States some eight months ago.

When a future historian addresses how the wealthiest nation on earth bungled its response to the coronavirus they could do worse than use the president’s personal experience as a lens through which to view what went wrong – and, perhaps, what went right.

Why We Wrote This

The president’s handling of his own health struggle has rapidly become an illustration of his government’s approach to managing a national crisis. How will history view it?

In his desire to win reelection the country’s chief executive almost seemed to try to will the virus away, downplaying its effects while focusing on reopening the economy. But that approach has now affected the president personally.

It’s an outcome that’s almost Shakespearean, says Ryan Enos, a professor of government at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The COVID-19 virus has affected not just the U.S., but China and the rich nations of Europe. The most successful efforts so far have been collective.

“In many ways, it was just supreme hubris by Trump,” says Dr. Enos.

In fact, Mr. Trump has also sought to accelerate a push by U.S. companies to develop vaccines. Yet he has repeatedly scorned the use of face masks and talked publicly about the virus fading quickly away.

On Monday the state of the president’s health remained unclear. In mid-afternoon he announced via Twitter that he would be leaving Walter Reed Medical Center in the evening, and was “feeling really good.” Doctors not associated with the case, however, felt his departure might be premature, since Mr. Trump appears to have experienced something more than mild symptoms.

There is clearly a tension between the picture of vitality that Mr. Trump tries to cultivate and accurate reports about the details of his health challenges. White House physician Sean Conley only confirmed reports that the president had received supplemental oxygen after news of the incidents leaked out through the press. On Sunday Dr. Conley said he was trying to reflect an “upbeat attitude” and “it came off as if we were trying to hide something, which wasn’t necessarily true.”

Meanwhile, the virus continued to spread through the West Wing. Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany tested positive for the coronavirus, as did two of her aides.

Presidents often downplay illness

Throughout U.S. history presidents have often downplayed ill health, sometimes to the point of concealing debilitating issues from the public. Woodrow Wilson suffered a severe stroke in 1919 and was virtually incapacitated for the remainder of his second term. Ronald Reagan was in much worse shape following an assassination attempt in 1981 than voters realized at the time.

Now, because of increased media coverage and a norm that the public be kept at least somewhat informed, much more is known about the state of presidential health in real time, says John Fortier, Director of Government Studies at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

But realistically this transparency can only go so far. The White House press pool doesn’t go in to see presidential blood pressure readings. Much is still based on trust – and trust in Trump communications among many reporters remains low, given the administration’s past misstatements.

“I don’t think we’re going to get too much further behind the curtain,” says Mr. Fortier.

As a matter of policy, the U.S. government would not want adversaries to know too much if a president is physically weakened. As a matter of politics, the current administration – like probably any – would want to project an image of as much strength as possible with the election only weeks away.

It’s not certain the Trump’s coronavirus diagnosis will have a significant effect on the political race. In today’s polarized age most voters decided long ago whether they’d reelect the current president, and polls have been remarkably stable despite the roller coaster ride of 2020 news.

“The small amount of undecideds out there, I don’t think this will affect them,” says Vince Galko, a Republican strategist at the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, office of Mercury, a public strategy firm.

However, the spread of the virus through the White House may refocus attention on the pandemic per se, and the way the administration has dealt with it. Polls show that’s one of Trump’s worst issues.

“I think that this ... has thrown the Trump campaign into complete chaos. Their whole strategy will be questioned and scrutinized,” says Andrew Feldman, a Democratic consultant at Feldman Strategies.

The Trump campaign hopes the Amy Coney Barrett Supreme Court nomination will energize their supporters in the crucial last days before Nov. 3. Mr. Trump and his surrogates have continued to push “law and order” messages designed to win back white suburbanites, particularly women, many of whom remain worried about civic unrest in the wake of mostly peaceful Black Lives Matter protests.

But in the end, the election was always going to be about a pandemic that has taken the lives of some 209,000 Americans, and continues to spread throughout the U.S. and upend daily life.

“As long as the coronavirus continues to go around like it has, it’s hard to change the subject,” says Democratic public affairs consultant Mathew Littman, a former speechwriter for Joe Biden. “And now that [Trump] has it, Kayleigh has it – how do you change it? You can’t.” 

But it’s also possible that Trump emerges as a sympathetic figure, perhaps more credible now due to his real experience with the virus. His tweet announcing his release from the hospital, in which says, “Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life,” hints at the way the Trump campaign might end up framing the subject.

The view from Milwaukee

In the key swing state of Wisconsin at least some voters interviewed in Milwaukee agree that Mr. Trump’s coronavirus diagnosis could actually make him a positive example for the nation.

“I think him getting it is only good because I think he’s going to get better and recover. And it’s going to show that people [can] recover,” says Marilyn Doermann, a nurse from Menomonee Falls.

Ms. Doermann says Mr. Trump has handled the virus response well. She voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 but says she plans on voting to reelect Mr. Trump this November.

Ceasar Gomez, a self-employed Milwaukee resident sporting a “Latinos for Trump” hat on Sunday afternoon, agreed with the idea that the president’s pandemic response was skillful.

“I think he’s doing good, both with his case and nationwide. What can you do?” said Mr. Gomez, who didn’t vote in 2016 but plans on supporting Mr. Trump this year.

Mr. Gomez, who said he doesn’t generally associate with any political party, was wearing a mask and taking other precautions. Despite Mr. Trump’s inconsistency wearing masks, Mr. Gomez still supports the president, and said he trusts that the government made as good an effort as possible protecting Mr. Trump.

“He has worn masks. It’s not like he’s never worn a mask,” says Mr. Gomez.

For some other Wisconsin residents, the president’s response to the pandemic has fallen short of what would be expected of a world leader.

“I think he’s been terrible since Day 1 on this virus, downplaying it from Day 1. And now he’s got it. It’s just poetic justice to me,” says Dennis Petrovic, a retired UAW worker from Racine.

Mr. Petrovic, an independent who usually votes for Democrats, voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and plans on voting for Joe Biden in November.

“He didn’t take it seriously,” Nick Puibello, a project manager at a bank who considers himself a moderate Democrat, said of Mr. Trump’s pandemic response.

After trying to play down the virus threat in general, “he tried to play down his own infection,” says Mr. Puibello, a Milwaukee resident who voted for Mrs. Clinton in 2016 and plans on voting for Mr. Biden next month.

America’s response to the pandemic has been so wrapped around the president’s persona, what he is and is not doing, how he thinks and talks about it, that his diagnosis has become a focal point of national discussion.

Many members of the public feel like the president has been irresponsible in his messaging about pandemic’s risks and how to prevent them, says Joshua Tucker, a professor of government at New York University. Mr. Trump has belittled Joe Biden for wearing masks, held large rallies without social distancing, and admitted to journalist Bob Woodward that he knowingly downplayed the seriousness of the pandemic in order to maintain calm.

These cues matter to his supporters. Consider the group of Trump loyalists who gathered outside Walter Reed Medical Center, many of whom waved flags and held signs – and didn’t wear masks.

It’s possible the coronavirus might now change President Trump. He would take a more active role in fighting the virus, having seen up close the costs. But that’s the sort of reversal for Trump that might take a big change in character, says Dr. Tucker. “It really would take a mea culpa here. But again, it’s a mea culpa that could save lives,” he says.

This article was written by Peter Grier with reporting by staff writers Nick Roll in Milwaukee, Story Hinckley in Washington, and Noah Robertson in Alexandria, Virginia.

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