Letters From an American

Heck of an October Surprise

Or is this just the first of many distractions?

Heck of an October Surprise

The South Portico entrance of the White House is photographed Monday, Oct. 28, 2019, during the 2019 White House Halloween event. (Official White House Photo by Andrea Hanks)

October 1, 2020

This evening, I talked to a woman who said she cannot read the news any more. It’s all just too much. If you feel this way, please understand that it is fine to look away when you need to. We are already exhausted, and we are entering a period that is going to be chaotic. Even a normal campaign year is crazy, but this year, the extraordinary chaos feeds the needs of this president to destabilize the country and emerge as a savior. The current chaos is designed to make you hopeless about creating change so that you give up. To combat that, look away and recharge your batteries. Focus on the things that ground you: family, friends, pets, gardening, movies, books, biking, church… whatever works. Just come back when you can… and remember to vote.

It’s going to be nuts from here on out.

In the first draft of this October 1 letter, I wrote that presidential adviser Hope Hicks has tested positive for coronavirus. Trump tweeted that he and the First Lady “will begin our quarantine process!” CNN’s White House correspondent John Harwood noted at 11:30 pm: “curious that neither Trump nor WH have disclosed any test results for him more than 3 hours after news broke that Hope Hicks tested positive. Trump’s typical approach is boasting that he doesn’t worry because he gets tested so much. He told Hannity he doesn’t know if he has it.” MSNBC justice and security analyst Matthew Miller tweeted “Thank god the White House has a history of being completely honest about the president’s health. It would be awful if we couldn’t trust them right now.”

At about 1:30 am on October 2, the White House announced that Trump and First Lady Melania Trump have tested positive for coronavirus. This will be the first time I break my midnight rule—in the past, I have always cut the news off at midnight, no matter what happens at 12:01—but this has such huge implications for national security, the economy, and, of course, the election that it has pushed everything else off the media radar screen and I cannot justify leaving it for a day.

Stock futures plunged more than 400 points immediately after the news broke, but right now that’s the only result of this news that we can measure.

The story has been coming clearer in the last three hours since the story broke. Apparently, Hicks tested negative on Wednesday before she boarded Air Force 1 with the president and most of his closest advisers, but developed symptoms during the day. A second test on Thursday morning was positive. Nonetheless, the president and his aides and advisers flew to New Jersey on Thursday, where he attended a fundraiser, gave a speech, and attended a roundtable with supporters, all without a mask. It was only the leaking of the Hicks story that shook loose the information that the Trumps are infected.

According to CNBC, those on Air Force 1 on Wednesday were White House chief of staff Mark Meadows; national security advisor Robert O’Brien; Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani; White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany; Ivanka; Jared Kushner; Donald Jr.; Eric; Donald Jr’s girlfriend Kimberly Guilfoyle; Eric’s wife Lara; Tiffany; campaign manager Bill Stepien; campaign official Jason Miller; White House social media director Dan Scavino; White House counselor Derek Lyons; political advisor Stephen Miller; Representative Jim Jordan, (R-Ohio), [and] Alice Marie Johnson, the criminal justice reform advocate Trump pardoned.

Trump also stood inside near Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden for an hour and a half on Tuesday, yelling and spitting—the very conditions that are most likely to spread the disease. At the debate, his entourage, which included Hicks, Jordan, and the four older Trump children, refused to wear masks despite the mandate that they do so.

This story proves how crucial it is to have a White House we trust. Immediately, Twitter users noted that someone had suggested this very scenario back in September as a way for Trump to steal headlines away from Biden, emerge victorious over the virus, and claim credit for a new treatment that had cured him. Elections almost always feature an “October Surprise” to move voters in the last few weeks of the election when it is too late for the other side to challenge that surprise move. And while this news certainly looks genuine—the White House doctor issued a statement after Trump announced the test results—there is plenty that the Trump campaign would like to distract us from.

On October 1, alone, we learned that a study of more than 38 million articles about the coronavirus pandemic between January 1 and May 26 published in English shows that Trump was “likely the largest driver of… Covid-19 misinformation.” The Cornell University study found that 37.9% of misinformation mentioned Trump.

Trump’s former national security adviser, retired Lt. General H.R. McMaster, told MSNBC that Trump is “aiding and abetting Putin’s efforts” to disrupt the November election. Trump’s refusal to acknowledge that Putin is engaged in a “sustained campaign of disruption, disinformation and denial” helps the Russian leader.

It turns out that Trump’s pick for the Supreme Court, Amy Coney Barrett, in 2006 signed an anti-abortion “right to life ad” near another ad from the same organization that called for putting “an end to the barbaric legacy of Roe v. Wade and restor[ing] laws that protect the lives of unborn children.” While such a stance will thrill anti-abortion voters, in fact a majority of Americans do not support ending Roe v. Wade, and senators up for reelection have been saying that Barrett would not interfere with the law.

A former senior adviser to Melania Trump today released tapes of the First Lady complaining both about being criticized for her lack of involvement with the children held at the border and for having to decorate the White House for Christmas. “I’m working … my a** off on the Christmas stuff, that you know, who gives a f*** about the Christmas stuff and decorations? But I need to do it, right?… OK, and then I do it and I say that I’m working on Christmas and planning for the Christmas and they said, ‘Oh, what about the children that they were separated?’ Give me a f****** break. Where they were saying anything when Obama did that? I cannot go, I was trying get the kid reunited with the mom. I didn’t have a chance — needs to go through the process and through the law.” (Under President Barack Obama, children were separated from their parents or someone who presented as a guardian only when officials were concerned for their safety. Under Trump, such separations were routine until a judge stopped the practice.)

Don Jr.’s girlfriend Kimberly Guilfoyle, who was a co-host of a Fox News Channel show, was also in the news today. It turns out that she left FNC abruptly after an employee complained of sexual harassment. According to a story by Jane Mayer in the New Yorker, Guilfoyle required her former assistant to work at her apartment, where Guilfoyle would sometimes be naked, and would share with the assistant inappropriate pictures of men, discussing her sexual activities with some of them. Guilfoyle denies any workplace misconduct, but the story grabbed headlines. FNC settled the case against her for $4 million.

Tonight the House of Representatives, controlled by Democrats, passed a $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief measure. No Republicans voted for it.

Right-wing conspiracy theorists Jacob Wohl and Jack Burkman have been charged with four felonies in Michigan for intimidating voters, conspiring to violate election laws, and using a computer to commit a crime. The two allegedly sent robocalls to voters in five states to discourage mail-in voting. The calls falsely said that personal information of those people who vote by mail would be shared with police, credit card companies, and the CDC, which would then require vaccinations.

Finally, a story from Texas shows just how concerned the Trump campaign is about the upcoming election. Today Texas Governor Greg Abbott limited the number of locations for dropping off mail in ballots to one site per county. This hits Democratic Harris County the hardest. It is huge, and has the state’s largest population count. Currently, it has 12 drop off locations. Democratic Travis County, which includes Austin, currently has four. Other large counties, more reliably Republican, only had one. Abbott argued that this measure would prevent voter fraud, but Democrats pointed out this is a “blatant voter suppression tactic.” It should indeed reduce Democratic ballots in the state… and, mind you, this is Texas! That the Republican governor feels the need to suppress Democratic votes in Texas shows just which way the wind is blowing.

As I say, the next few weeks are going to be wild. But don’t let it knock you off course.

We are pleased to be presenting daily posts from Heather Cox Richardson’s “Letters From an American” email newsletter. You can sign up to receive it in your inbox here

Heather Cox Richardson

Heather Cox Richardson teaches American history at Boston College. She is the author of a number of books, most recently, How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America. She writes the popular nightly newsletter Letters from an American. Follow her on Twitter: @HC_Richardson.