Early Oct. 3, the president and first lady announced that they were two of 50,000 Americans that day who tested positive for the COVID-19 virus. The White House decided that “out of an abundance of caution” the president would recuperate at Walter Reed Medical Center. This was prudent, given the president’s age and health history, placing him in the high-risk category to contract the life-threatening disease. Given the fact that the election is less than a month from now, these developments were unprecedented.
Before the president contracted COVID-19, the Trump reelection game plan was to shift focus away from the pandemic. The aim was to place the attention of the media and voters on law and order issues, and voter fraud resulting from mail-in ballots. The coronavirus outbreak in the White House assured the opposite would happen.
Now there are questions that must be investigated in light of the president’s condition and the many others within his orbit who tested positive. After months of research, we know a great deal about the virus and how to be shielded from its effects. The White House should be among the safest environments on earth, not a COVID hot zone. Many parents will now question how their children can remain safe in a public school with limited resources and minimal access to testing when the White House is unable to protect its occupants.
Why did so many participants at a White House ceremony the previous Saturday test positive? When the president’s close adviser, Hope Hicks, tested positive, what prevented the White House from following the guidelines of its own task force to immediately quarantine all who came into contact with her, including the president? Why would the president and his campaign entourage, knowing of their exposures, insist on attending election events in several states on Oct. 2? Why have the medical updates on the president’s illness been confusing and contradictory? Is the spread of COVID-19 in the White House the result of Republican hubris or of a disease that can bypass all defenses?
In connection with the health and welfare of the American people, the more important question is how will the president’s contraction of the virus affect national pandemic policy? How will it affect the election? I am not in the camp who believe President Trump’s illness will result in a sudden epiphany and push to develop a more comprehensive national plan for the pandemic. There may be some benefit to examining the paths taken in Great Britain and Brazil after their respective heads of state contracted the virus.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson tested positive for coronavirus on March 27. His condition quickly worsened, he ended up in intensive care, which prompted an outpouring of public support. The prime minister took the disease more seriously after his discharge from the hospital and cooperated in shutting down the country. Presently, Johnson’s approval ratings are low, but unlike Trump, his election is not until 2024.
When President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil tested positive in July, he was not severely affected and did not require hospitalization. This permitted him to boast that the virus was “like the flu” and that “herd immunity” is a viable option in responding to the pandemic. For months he continued to hold the position that only the elderly and infirm should participate in the lockdown. Like Trump, he attacked regional governors who imposed broader measures. Bolsonaro’s approval ratings among his ardent followers have remained constant, signaling there is political life after getting coronavirus.
Trump was released from the hospital Oct. 5. He is adapting the approach of the Brazilian leader by continuing to minimize the medical impact of the virus. It is my view that if the president quickly recovers, his illness will have marginal influence on the election results. 2020 has been a year in which every week has brought new unexpected shocks and revelations to the American people. These final weeks of the campaign will no doubt accelerate this trend, as was the case before the election in October 2016.
What are some possibilities? Attorney General William Barr may release the results of the 15-month probe into the FBI’s investigation of the Trump campaign when he believes it will most helpful to the president. Yet another former senior Trump official may come forward with new revelations about the president’s abhorrent conduct. A pharmaceutical company may announce a major vaccine breakthrough. There are numerous other surprises beyond the scope of now knowing what is possible.
It is easy to get caught up in the explosive news cycle and the superficial details of what was said or done by political actors in our fast-paced environment. For those of us dedicated to bringing sanity back to Washington, it is time to stop formulating theories on what is wrong with the presidency. Rather, it is time to plan for and perform simple tasks that will make a difference, including the following efforts.
Make sure voters receive their ballots by mail or have transportation to the polls. Help first-time mail-in voters to understand the procedures involved, and encourage them to return the ballot as soon as possible. Call and email everyone who has communicated a desire to be on the right side of history and encourage them to vote.
October is not the season for political analysis, emotion or criticism. It is the occasion to take action in order to right the many wrongs of the past four years.
Gary Stout is a Washington attorney.