I try to give us all a break on the weekend, but today seems like a day for which we need a record.
The president remains at Walter Reed Hospital. His condition is unclear. His doctors gave a cheery if vague picture of his health this morning, but minutes later, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows gave an off-the-record report to the press pool that told a different story. “The president’s vitals over the last 24 hours were very concerning, and the next 48 hours will be critical in terms of his care,” Meadows said. “We’re still not on a clear path to a full recovery.” Meadows had been caught on tape asking to go off the record, so his identity was revealed.
Furious, Trump went to Twitter to say he was “feeling well!” In the evening, he released a four-minute video showing him sitting up at a conference table, saying in a rambling monologue that he would be back to campaigning soon. The video had been edited.
In his briefing to reporters, Dr. Sean Conley dated Trump’s diagnosis to Wednesday, a day earlier than Trump had admitted publicly. That new information meant that Trump was contagious at Tuesday’s debate, and that he knew he was contagious when he attended a fundraiser at his Bedminster golf club on Thursday, maskless. It would also mean that Trump knew he was sick before his adviser Hope Hicks’s diagnosis. After the press conference, the White House released a document saying that Conley had misspoken.
Over the course of the day, more members of Trump’s inner circle announced they have tested positive for coronavirus: former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI), and Nick Luna, Trump’s personal assistant, are all infected; Christie is in the hospital. It also became clear that the White House had made little or no effort to trace who had contact with the infected officials.
Meanwhile, White House sources told reporters that Trump had fought against going to Walter Reed Hospital so close to the election, fearing he would look weak. His doctors gave him no choice. He finally gave in, but waited until after the stock market closed on Friday to make the trip. He is not being treated with hydroxychloroquine, which he repeatedly touted as an effective cure for Covid-19, but rather with the anti-viral drug remdesivir.
Trump has built his case for reelection on the idea that the coronavirus either is not that serious or has run its course. He has ridiculed the idea of wearing masks, and refused to follow the safety protocols health experts recommended. Now he and his wife are sick, and coronavirus is spreading through his inner circle, apparently through a super spreader event last weekend at the White House, when Trump announced he was nominating Amy Coney Barrett to take the Supreme Court seat of the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Trump’s strategy of downplaying the virus to convince Americans it was over has backfired spectacularly, with the nation watching aghast as the disease spreads through the White House and officials there seem unable to come up with a straight story about what’s happening. Interviewed by Isaac Chotiner for the New Yorker, Maggie Haberman of the New York Times, who has long-time sources in the White House, said that people there are “incredibly anxious…. For their own safety. For the safety of the country. I think they are scared for the president…. And I think they are just shell-shocked.”
According to Haberman, Trump “is very, very reluctant to have information about his health out there…. Any perception of weakness for him is some kind of psychic wound.” She explained how the upcoming election makes this sentiment particularly powerful right now. “This is his worst nightmare. Not just getting sick with this, but any scenario where he is out of sight and being tended to and Joe Biden is out campaigning.”
Indeed, Biden has taken to the campaign trail. With just a month left before the election, he is on the road while Trump’s campaign is paralyzed. Biden adviser Anita Dunn explained to Politico that he is practicing what he has been preaching. “There is no reason not to show the country that, yes, you can go about your business—if you do it safely, if you wear masks, if you socially distance…. The vice president has talked about this since March.”
The timing of the Trumps’ illness coincided with the final push from the Biden campaign. It has pulled its negative ads out of respect for the Trumps, it says, but had likely planned to anyway in order to focus on an uplifting message of change in the last month of the campaign. In any case, at this point the Biden campaign hardly has to draw attention to how poorly the administration had handled the coronavirus pandemic. With Trump in the hospital with Covid-19, it’s pretty obvious.
“They all know it’s over,” a Republican close to the Trump campaign told Vanity Fair’s Gabriel Sherman. Another said, “This is spiraling out of control.”
It was a bad week politically for the president anyway. It was only a week ago—on Sunday—that the New York Times released information about his taxes, revealing that he is hundreds of millions of dollars in debt and has avoided almost all U.S. taxes for years. Just two days later—Tuesday—the first presidential debate saw Trump blustering and bullying in what he thought was a demonstration that his supporters would love. Maybe members of his base did, but a New York Times/Siena College poll released today indicates that most voters were repelled by Trump’s behavior. Biden is up seven points among likely voters in Pennsylvania, and five points in Florida. By Thursday, we knew that Hope Hicks had tested positive for coronavirus, and shortly after midnight, in the early hours of Friday, we knew that the president and the First Lady had also tested positive.
If there was any good news in all this for the Trump campaign, it was that the tape released Thursday of the First Lady saying “who gives a f*** about the Christmas stuff and decorations?” and “Give me a f****** break” about children separated from their parents has largely been forgotten. So has the statement of former national security adviser H.R. McMaster that the president is “aiding and abetting” Putin because he refuses to acknowledge that Russians are attacking the 2020 election.
Despite the growing crisis in the administration, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is still trying to get Barrett confirmed before the election, even if nothing else gets done. He has announced the Senate will not conduct business again until October 19, meaning it cannot take up the coronavirus bill the House just passed. Nonetheless, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) has announced that the Senate Judiciary Committee will meet to consider Barrett’s nomination, despite the fact that two members of the committee are infected with coronavirus. Those two say they will quarantine for just ten days so they can emerge in time for Barrett’s confirmation hearings beginning on October 12.
And while we are watching coronavirus infect the president and those around him, it also continues to spread around the rest of the country. The United States as a whole on Friday saw the highest count of new cases since August: 54,411. Deaths are down, but still 906 Americans died on Friday from Covid-19.