From John F. Kennedy, Jr., saluting his father’s coffin to George W. Bush speaking into a megaphone at Ground Zero after 9/11 to a tieless Barack Obama sitting in the White House Situation Room watching updates during the raid to kill Osama bin Laden, all Presidencies are associated with iconic images. Until the past forty-eight hours, who could have imagined that one of the most indelible images of Donald Trump’s tumultuous Presidency would be of him walking slowly to Marine One, taking off from the White House, and being flown over the leafy northwestern quadrant of Washington, D.C., to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center?
On Friday evening, that was what millions of Americans saw when they turned on their televisions to watch the news. After the military helicopter landed at Walter Reed, Trump could be seen giving a quick thumbs-up to the two pilots and walking down a ramp to a waiting limousine, which whisked him into the naval-hospital complex. A few minutes later, the White House posted a short video on Trump’s Twitter feed that the President had recorded before leaving the White House. In it, he thanked everybody who had sent him messages of support, and said, “I am going to Walter Reed Hospital. I think I am doing very well, but we are going to make sure that things work out.”
Trump’s hospitalization has plunged the 2020 election campaign into even more confusion and uncertainty. On Friday afternoon, some twelve hours after the announcement that the President and the First Lady had tested positive for the coronavirus and would begin quarantining, Bill Stepien, Trump’s campaign manager, issued a statement saying that the candidate’s previously scheduled events would be postponed or held virtually. At that stage, there was no intimation from the White House that Trump’s condition was serious enough to justify a hospital stay, even a precautionary one.
With Trump now confined to Walter Reed, and Stepien, Chris Christie, and Kellyanne Conway having confirmed that they, too, have tested positive for the virus, the Trump campaign has been derailed. The fate of the remaining two Presidential debates is up in the air. (As of Saturday morning, Wednesday’s Vice-Presidential debate, in Utah, seems likely to go ahead, with expanded social-distancing guidelines.) About the only things that are certain are that Trump is still well behind in the polls and that Election Day, on November 3rd, is only a month away.
On Friday, Joe Biden campaigned in Grand Rapids, Michigan, after saying that he had tested negative for the virus, having shared the stage with Trump at Tuesday’s debate, in Cleveland. “I’d like to start by acknowledging [and] sending my prayers for the health and safety of the First Lady and President of the United States,” the former Vice-President said at a labor-union event. “My wife, Jill, and I pray that they’ll make a quick and full recovery. This is not a matter of politics. It’s a bracing reminder to all of us that we have to take this virus seriously.”
Biden’s message was perfectly pitched, displaying a compassion and humanity that won him plaudits even from some commentators on the Fox News Web site. At the same time, Biden drew attention to Trump’s biggest electoral weakness: his abysmal mishandling of a pandemic that has killed more than two hundred thousand Americans and is still spreading. From the beginning of this terrible year, the President has sought to minimize COVID-19. As recently as Tuesday night, he mocked his opponent for regularly wearing a mask.
The political uncertainty is accentuated by a lack of transparency from the White House. On Saturday morning, thirty-six hours after Trump’s initial announcement of his positive test, the President’s physician, U.S. Navy Commander Sean P. Conley, finally held a media briefing. Appearing alongside a large medical team at Walter Reed, he said that Trump was doing “very well,” was up and about, and didn’t currently have a fever. But when reporters asked Conley if Trump had taken supplemental oxygen at any point, he was evasive. And when asked why the medical team had started the President on a course of remdesivir, which is usually reserved for patients with serious cases of COVID-19, he said merely, “We are maximizing all aspects of his care.”
Conley also said that he didn’t know when Trump would leave Walter Reed, and he emphasized that the key period in the disease comes seven to ten days after the initial diagnosis, when complications can set in. Moments after his press conference ended, a White House official, speaking on background, offered what seemed to be a contradictory interpretation of the President’s condition, telling the press pool that “the President’s vitals over the last twenty-four hours were very concerning, and the next forty-eight hours will be critical in terms of his care.” The official, who appeared to be the White House chief of staff, Mark Meadows, based on video of the exchange with reporters, added, “We’re still not on a clear path to a full recovery.”
Until we see how Trump’s condition progresses, it’s impossible to say where the election campaign will go from here. The possibilities range from Trump making a rapid recovery and resuming his campaign, perhaps virtually at the start, to him becoming incapacitated and having to transfer power, at least on a temporary basis, to Vice-President Mike Pence, who so far has tested negative for the virus.
In a worst-case scenario, Trump could be forced to withdraw from the race. The Republican National Committee, which is made up of officials from across the country, would then have to select a new candidate—presumably Pence. Given the calendar, things could get complicated. “State deadlines for candidates to register on the ballot have passed, and millions of ballots have already been printed, mailed out, or indeed returned by voters,” an analysis at the Financial Times pointed out on Friday. “That means a change in candidate at this late date means it would probably be impossible to swap names on most ballots. But the arcane US Electoral College system might mean that any replacement selected by party officials could yet stand in his place.”
In some quarters of the Democratic Party, there is a justifiable fear that Trump and his Republican allies might use his illness to try to delay the election—a possibility that the President has already raised in the context of his unsubstantiated claims about mail-in voting. In a tweet on July 30th, he wrote, “2020 will be the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history. It will be a great embarrassment to the USA. Delay the Election until people can properly, securely and safely vote???”After objections from some Republicans in Congress, Trump backed off this tweet. But his incendiary statements over the past few weeks, and particularly during Tuesday’s debate, suggest that he is intent on disrupting the election in almost any way he can.
Under Article II of the Constitution, only Congress has the authority to set, or change, the date of the election. That means the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives would have to approve any postponement. Such an arrangement seems highly unlikely, and for good reason. From the day that Trump was elected, the burning question has been whether the United States, and its system of government, is bigger than him and his destructive ways. Even as the President undergoes medical treatment, this question needs to be answered in the affirmative. For Democratic officials, the appropriate stance is to echo Biden in wishing Trump a rapid recovery, and to add that they look forward to defeating him and his party in a full and fair election on November 3rd. Compassion doesn’t mean capitulation.