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45,694 Americans tested positive for the coronavirus yesterday, but for the moment we’re only going to talk about two, and their names are Donald and Melania Trump. Maybe three, because they appear to have contracted it from Hope Hicks, who was around the first couple as they traveled to Cleveland for Tuesday’s debate and Minnesota for a campaign rally. She came back in quarantine on Air Force One after experiencing mild symptoms.
To get one thing out of the way: I hope the Trumps don’t die from coronavirus. It’s a horrible disease and I wish that none of the 7.2 million Americans ever had the misfortune of catching it.
That said, there is nobody on this Earth who has invited infection more than Donald Trump. He has held rallies indoors without masks, and even the outdoor rallies have people packed in tight. He’s defied public health restrictions with these events. He’s rarely used a mask himself and has raised doubts about their efficacy. He has gone out of his way to downplay the seriousness of the virus, demanded that states get out of lockdown within weeks of the first wave in March, cheered on armed groups at state capitols mounting to “liberate” their states, and stumped for schools to reopen. Several people in his orbit contracted the virus and he continued these actions. After he learned about Hope Hicks’ positive test, he went out to a fundraiser in New Jersey and gave a speech in front of dozens of people.
He’s adopted just about every behavior you would adopt if you were deliberately attempting to become a super-spreader, short of putting COVID smelling salts under his nose. He did it with arrogance and an extreme lack of compassion for the dead and the dying. He laughed at everyone taking precautions, and I’m not going to tone police anyone laughing at him.
But a lot of real-world consequences grow from this incident. First of all, Trump could be as hard a man to contact trace as any individual in the world. West Wing personnel, campaign staff, family, traveling press, rally participants, thousands of people are at risk. We don’t know when he would have become contagious, or when Hicks was, or where. Trump spent Tuesday night shouting in an indoor hall about six feet away from his 78-year-old opponent. (For the record, everyone in the hall for the debate was tested, and tested negative. That’s not foolproof, of course.)
The point is that, in his indeterminate time with the virus in public, Trump had close contact with thousands of people. That could include Amy Coney Barrett, his Supreme Court nominee, who is subsequently scheduled to meet with nearly every Senate Republican. (Already there’s talk from liberals about postponing the hearings.) It includes pretty much the entire top level of the executive branch. And so on. Does everyone quarantine? Can the executive branch, this executive branch, work from home as well as, well, your office? Will we even know if this becomes a super-spreader event?
Trump is off the campaign trail for a couple weeks and another in-person debate is unlikely. (putting the would-be “leaders of the free world” on Zoom, to be muted by the moderator on a whim, would be fitting comeuppance, especially after Tuesday.) All we know is the positive test; whether there will be any transparency as to his actual medical condition is anyone’s guess, though I’d guess not. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s near-death experience was marked by habitual obfuscation from Downing Street spokespeople.
It’s a little difficult to know how this plays out politically, but not much. Yes Ronald Reagan was hailed as a hero sitting in a hospital bed after being shot. But this is a metaphor for the inattention and failure to protect that has marked the last seven months of the Trump presidency. There’s nothing that more poignantly reflects the irresponsibility. Two weeks ago (!), Trump was thrilled to have a chance with Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death to change the subject away from the coronavirus. That’s impossible now.
If Trump gets sick, perhaps very sick (he is in a higher-risk category, though he does have an “indestructible against all odds and practice of good nutrition” quality), what exactly happens? Under the 25th Amendment he could transfer power to Mike Pence until he recovers, and then take it back. If he’s too incapacitated to serve, or worse, that’s a different matter. Election law expert Rick Hasen points out that there’s no good protocol for replacing a nominee on the presidential ballot, and especially not this close to an election. An already chaotic election would simply devolve if a replacement was chosen that couldn’t get on the ballot and may or may not be counted in write-in votes.
Again, I think that’s remote. What’s clear is that Trump will have the best medical care, the best doctors, the best living conditions. He won’t have to worry about losing a paycheck while he’s sick, or managing the isolation of quarantine. In other words, none of the hardships facing millions of Americans who have been infected will befall him.
Maybe there’s one silver lining here. The one person in the world got the virus who could get through to the more intransigent of our citizens, the ones blowing off the pandemic as no big deal, calling masks the destruction of freedom. Trump is the only one who could tell them, “this is serious and you need to take it seriously,” and have that be taken to heart. Now this would involve Trump learning from experience and wanting to help others, so I’m not holding my breath. But maybe, this is a hinge point that gets this country much more serious about the virus.