The Morning Jolt


The President Tests Positive for COVID

President Trump with wife Melania wait to welcome Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the White House in Washington, D.C., September 15, 2020. (Al Drago/Reuters)

On the menu today: Just when you thought the year 2020 had thrown all its curveballs, it brings out one of the wildest ones yet. The president, the First Lady, and presidential aide Hope Hicks tested positive for the coronavirus. So far, and as of this writing, they’re fine. Hopefully they’ll stay fine. But we’ve just been given one more giant serving of uncertainty as October gets started.

Pray for the President and Those Fighting Coronavirus Everywhere

Pray for the president, the First Lady, Hope Hicks, and everyone around the country and everyone around the world who is fighting off an infection of the coronavirus. They’re going to need all the help they can get.

Shortly before 1 a.m. this morning, President Trump announced, via Twitter, that he and Melania had tested positive for coronavirus. “We will begin our quarantine and recovery process immediately. We will get through this TOGETHER!”

Sean Conley, the president’s physician, released a short letter declaring, “the president and first lady are both well at this time, and they plan to remain at home within the White House during their convalescence. The White House medical team and I will maintain a vigilant watch, and I appreciate the support provided by some of our country’s greatest medical professionals and institutions. Rest assured I expect the President to continue carrying out his duties without disruption while recovering, and I will keep you updated on any future developments.”

The president has the best doctors, with access to the best technology and tools, and the most up-to-date research on treatment options. For a man his age, the president is pretty hale and hearty. Roughly 40 percent of people are asymptomatic, so it is possible the president may develop no symptoms or mild symptoms. But he did just turn 74, and he has pretty much the perfect definition of a stressful job that is in a particularly stressful situation.

Jonathan Martin, Maggie Haberman, and Matt Stevens of the New York Times report:

In the early hours of Friday, some of Mr. Trump’s aides were discussing ways for him to be seen by the public later in the day, so that he could convey to them that he was still leading the country. One option was an address to the nation, a person briefed on the discussions said.

Yet in private conversations, members of his staff were also candid that the president has comorbidities that could make him more susceptible to a severe bout of the virus.

Back in May, Trump said he had “just finished” taking a two-week course of the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine, “the medication he has vigorously promoted as a preventative or curative treatment for the coronavirus.”

It is now possible that at some point in the near future, the president may require hospitalization or some other period of intensive care that would interfere with his ability to perform his duties. Over in the United Kingdom, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab temporarily took over the duties of the prime minister when Boris Johnson was admitted to intensive care. It’s easy to forget that Johnson was out of action for three weeks.

The vice president has temporarily taken over while the president undergoing lengthy medical procedures twice before in American history:

The first time this was ever put into use came on July 13, 1985, when President Reagan underwent colon cancer surgery and Vice President Bush became “acting president.” Just prior to the operation, Reagan sent letters to the speaker of the House and the Senate president pro tempore advising them he “will be briefly and temporarily incapable of discharging the Constitutional powers and duties of the office of the president of the United States,” and thus “Vice President George Bush shall discharge those powers and duties in my stead commencing with the administration of anesthesia to me in this instance.” This transfer of power lasted all of eight hours — from 11:28 a.m. until 7:22 p.m. — after which Reagan sent follow-up letters stating he was able to resume the duties. Various press reports say that for most of his tenure as acting president, Bush played tennis.

Vice President Dick Cheney is the only other person to serve as “acting president.” On June 29, 2002, President George W. Bush underwent a colonoscopy, during which Cheney assumed the duties for two hours and 15 minutes.

In 1997, Bill Clinton had knee surgery after stumbling and ripping a tendon, but he “was awake for most of the two-hour, four-minute procedure, and never surrendered his constitutional powers.”

I hope the White House staff can share as much information about the president’s health as possible, updated as frequently as possible. Ideally, the president will be able to safely appear in front of the cameras regularly, and not hinder his recovery. Nature abhors a vacuum, and in the absence of official word about the president’s health, speculations and rumors will rush in to fill the void. Social media will make it worse; foreign disinformation efforts will make it even worse.

Last night, someone started a rumor that nuclear command planes were in the air, purportedly as a deterrent to any hostile foreign force that wanted to start trouble while the president is dealing with a health issue. Those planes are apparently often in the air, and do not represent a particular precaution or higher alert.

However, the White House staff now faces particularly thorny problems. Frequent rapid testing clearly isn’t foolproof. Social distancing is particularly difficult, as the West Wing of the White House is cramped, considering the majesty of the building and the importance of the work done there. Apparently, few staffers wear masks. (I’ll bet they’ll be wearing them now!) Because of national-security issues, little of the work can be done from home. I’m sure every member of the president’s personal security detail from the Secret Service is being tested; for obvious reasons, they can’t keep their distance from the president.

I don’t think anyone knows how this will affect the presidential election. This could spur a wave of sympathy for the president — as well as the First Lady and Hicks and the White House staff. No doubt some will see this as comeuppance for a White House that disdained masks, quarreled with Dr. Fauci, and apparently did not practice precautionary measures consistently enough.

The upcoming presidential debates will be, at minimum, altered and perhaps canceled. Doctors will want to keep Trump a considerable distance away from other people, and that would include turning-78-next-month Joe Biden. Assuming his health permits it, the president will be able to videoconference with others, but this probably means, at minimum, two weeks off the trail.

For all the pain, gloom, and trouble of 2020, perhaps this ominous news will bring us together. Shortly after the news broke, Rachel Maddow of MSNBC tweeted, “God bless the president and the first lady. If you pray, please pray for their speedy and complete recovery — and for everyone infected, everywhere. This virus is horrific and merciless — no one would wish its wrath on anyone. We must get its spread under control. Enough.” Thank you for taking the high road, Rachel Maddow.

However, this is a giant flashing neon sign that we must see this problem with clear eyes and not flinch in the face of scary truths. We’re not done with this pandemic, and this pandemic isn’t done for us. That vaccine is getting closer, but we can’t get lax or reckless yet. I’m thinking of all of those people who assured us for months that “herd immunity was just around the corner” or “the outbreak is gone in most places or on the way out” . . . and I wonder what they’re thinking at this moment. As I wrote on September 15, “the primary problem in this coronavirus has been that many, many Americans, both in government and outside of government, insisted it wouldn’t be that bad and thus underestimated the risk to themselves and others.”

ADDENDUM: All of this seems like small potatoes compared to the big news of the day, but the Biden campaign is going back to door-knocking; some former FBI official wants a bipartisan commission to vet presidential nominees; and the Biden campaign is quiet, which is probably just the way they want it.


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