Tim Ryan was back in Washington late on Thursday night, happy to be two days separated from the presidential debate, which he called “the worst 90 minutes of my adult life,” adding, “I wanted to crawl under the chair.” As he prepared to sleep, Ryan, a Democratic congressman from Ohio, was thinking about what it meant that Hope Hicks, one of Donald Trump’s closest aides, had tested positive for the coronavirus. He knew Trump would have to be tested, but he didn’t think much of it.
When he woke up on Friday to news of the president’s positive test result, though, he ran to get himself tested and found his mind racing to retrace his steps at the debate on Tuesday night at the Cleveland Clinic — he’d been in the room, near Trump’s unmasked family and entourage. And he found himself growing angrier.
“That night, I was like, you know, ‘Just how arrogant are they? We’re being hosted by the Cleveland Clinic! The head of Cleveland Clinic gives welcoming remarks to the thing. It’s not like we’re at some bar,’” he told me on Friday afternoon, his voice getting higher as his frustration rose. “We were in the middle of the greatest health-care system in the world, and all the Trumps walk out with no masks on. It was typical, but now you look back on it: The rules don’t apply? You don’t pay taxes; you don’t wear masks; and if you get in trouble with a porn star, you pay her off?” He slowed down for a second to reflect on the danger of the pandemic. “If you give it to me, I go home and my wife’s a school teacher. Our three kids go to schools.”
Now that Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, have tested negative, Ryan wants the Biden campaign to go “full-steam ahead, absolutely. We’re praying for Trump. We don’t want him to be sick. We don’t want his wife to be sick. He’s still the president, and there’s still respect that office holds,” he said. “But he was the one making fun of Biden” for taking the virus seriously.
Ryan was speaking for plenty of influential Democrats, and his thinking was mirrored atop the Biden campaign. After a few hours of silence were broken by a negative test result, Biden went ahead with his campaign trip to Grand Rapids, Michigan on Friday afternoon. Running-mate Kamala Harris, who hadn’t been in Cleveland or near Trump, also tested negative, was already off for Las Vegas. Later, the campaign announced two more in-person trips: Jill Biden would soon be heading to Minnesota, and Harris’ husband would be off to Reno, Nevada.
This decision to keep up the campaign schedule wasn’t immediately obvious when the political world shuttered after Trump’s 1 a.m. announcement he got the virus. Things changed again by early evening, when the campaign was pulling its negative ads about Trump and replacing them with positive spots about Biden. That decision was made shortly before Trump went to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for what the White House called a days-long stay out of an “abundance of caution.”
For much of Friday, the future shape of Biden’s campaign looked to be up in the air — at least to outsiders and Democrats without a direct line to the former vice-president and his braintrust. As Biden and his team woke and rushed to get their own tests after learning the news, it wasn’t yet clear whether the Democratic nominee could travel at all given that he might have been exposed to the virus by the president at Tuesday’s debate. Surely not, went one reasonable line of thinking: Trump had been yelling 13 feet away, and his family members and aides refused to wear masks even when Cleveland Clinic staffers pleaded with them to do so. That course was not without downsides, though: Biden had weathered months of badgering from Republicans and some nervous liberals that he was cowering in his basement, or at least not being active enough on the trail. But even as he ramped up his travel schedule this fall, Biden always modeled responsible behavior — always wearing a mask near others, for instance — and it seemed that now was no time to break that pattern, especially when contrasted with Trump’s recklessness.
But shortly after noon on Friday, Biden’s campaign circulated a note from his doctor revealing that he and Jill had tested negative. His press corps was soon informed that his planned travel to Michigan was still on. When he boarded his flight at Delaware’s New Castle Airport, now behind schedule, he was wearing a white mask that looked distinctly more protective than his usual black cloth one.
Just a few minutes later, the Trump campaign formally postponed all upcoming events featuring the president and his family, but noted that Vice-President Mike Pence, who is due to debate Harris next week, would stay on the trail. It was the most predictable decision, and it confirmed senior Democrats’ confidence that they should keep the campaign rolling and, even if only implicitly, maintain on the Trump administration handling of the crisis. Pence, after all, chairs the White House’s coronavirus task force.
Biden “should change nothing,” said former governor of South Carolina Jim Hodges. “The strategy that he has had — which is to focus the election on COVID and the president’s handling of COVID — has worked very well, and, if anything, the events of today show there will be more focus on COVID in the coming weeks.” Gone, predicted a handful of Biden backers, are any chances for the president to distract from the matter at hand: a pandemic that has killed more than 200,000 Americans. Nor, they say, can Trump keep gaining even the perception of a fleeting advantage from mocking Biden for being too cautious, with his small campaign events and diligent mask-wearing.
Still, Biden’s camp has already been careful to moderate its tone, instructing surrogates and aides to tread lightly in their initial public commentary about the president’s illness. To Democrats on the ground in the regions Biden is most concerned about, that early posture is just fine. Especially considering that part of Biden’s appeal to voters revolves around his promise of a return to calmer days, particularly after Trump drove the debate into chaos. “A lot of what Joe Biden needs to do to close out the campaign is still introduce himself to swing voters. So he should set an appropriate tone and be cognizant of any health risks while campaigning,” said one battleground state Democratic official. “But our entire democracy is at stake. I don’t think you scale back at all. Just be smart about the tone you set.”
Even that concern may be overblown, said Hodges. Nonetheless, he warned of an especially unpredictable final stretch. “Campaigns are full of bed-wetters,” he shrugged. “What they don’t know is will Trump pivot and profess he’s learned a lot from his illness? They’ve got to be thinking through questions like that.”
Lest you think Hodges is really predicting a pivot five years into the Trump show, he continued: “It’s unlikely, but they have to be prepared for it. If Trump believes he’s going down the tubes in the election, it’s the last Hail Mary he’ll throw. It’s still more likely that if Trump is OK, he’ll say, ‘This is proof this illness can be managed.’”