President Trump boasted that he was enjoying the “protective glow” of immunity from COVID-19 on Sunday, one day after claiming that the coronavirus was “disappearing,” despite an ongoing surge of cases around the country. But while the president has survived COVID-19, whatever immunity he now has won’t protect him from American voters.
Following Trump’s infection and the White House outbreak, the president’s mishandling of the pandemic now threatens his political mortality more than ever. An ABC News/Washington Post poll released Sunday found that Joe Biden held a 17-point lead over Trump on the question of who Americans trusted more to handle the pandemic, and the sentiment appears to be expanding the former vice-president’s lead over Trump. Per ABC News, “Two-thirds of registered voters say Trump failed to take appropriate precautions against the virus, 62 percent distrust what he says about it, and eight months since its arrival in the United States just 21 percent say it’s under control.”
Indeed there is no evidence that Trump has received, or will receive, any political benefit from his illness, despite his and his allies’ ongoing attempts to spin his ordeal as some kind of windfall for his campaign or the country. In addition, Trump’s post-illness double-down on dismissing the threat of COVID-19 seems likely to make the political impact worse, as does a new feud between the Trump team and the nation’s most respected infectious-disease expert.
At the beginning of ABC News’ This Week on Sunday morning, host Jonathan Karl announced that the White House “wouldn’t allow” Dr. Anthony Fauci (or any other medical expert on the White House coronavirus task force) to appear on the show. Then later in the day, Dr. Fauci publicly rebuked a misleading new Trump campaign ad that frames a comment he made back in March as an endorsement of the president’s overall handling of the pandemic — which it definitely was not. The ad, which begins with a narrator claiming, “President Trump is recovering from the coronavirus, and so is America,” later features Fauci appearing to say, regarding Trump, “I can’t imagine … that anybody could be doing more.”
“In my nearly five decades of public service, I have never publicly endorsed any political candidate,” Fauci said in a statement on Sunday. “The comments attributed to me without my permission in the GOP campaign ad were taken out of context from a broad statement I made months ago about the efforts of federal public-health officials.”
The president and the Trump campaign have since made it clear that they don’t care what Fauci actually thinks, and the campaign says it will not stop airing the ad.
Trump does, however, care about what he authorized his doctor to say about his illness. White House physician Dr. Sean Conley announced on Saturday night that, after reviewing Trump’s latest test results and symptoms, the COVID-19-infected president was “no longer considered a transmission risk to others.” It was yet another statement from Conley that raised as many questions as it answered about the president’s illness, and it may have been timed to counteract criticism of Trump’s decision to hold his first public event on Saturday afternoon just five days after leaving the hospital.
Conley did not say that Trump had tested negative for COVID-19 (the virus may remain detectable for months following the onset of symptoms), but the president’s doctor indicated that Trump’s viral load had dropped and the virus no longer appeared to be replicating itself in his body. COVID-19 experts seem to mostly agree that, based on the information Conley reported, Trump is probably no longer contagious, but experts also agree that Conley’s statement provided too little information to know for sure, and that it continues to appear that the White House is downplaying the severity of Trump’s illness. As former FDA commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb noted on Sunday, it’s also still unclear how healthy the president actually is or what lingering effects the illness may have on him.
Trump tried to dismiss any concerns about his prognosis during a long phone interview on Sunday morning with Fox News host Maria Bartiromo. He claimed he had passed “the highest test,” beaten the “crazy, horrible” virus, and suggested he was now immune from COVID-19 — and implied that this supposed immunity made him better than Joe Biden. “I have to tell you, I feel fantastically,” Trump said, “I really feel good. And I even feel good by the fact that, you know, the word ‘immunity’ means something — having really a protective glow means something. I think it’s very important to have that, to have that is a very important thing.”
“Now you have a president who doesn’t have to hide in a basement like his opponent,” he added, referring to Biden. “You have a president who is immune, which is a big — I think, which is a very important thing, frankly.” (He also called for media attention to any Biden coughing.)
While it’s obviously true that Biden could still contract COVID-19 at any point in the future and the virus would pose a significant health risk to anyone Biden’s age, the former vice-president has clearly been way more careful than Trump. The president and his allies have tried to leverage Biden’s caution against him, including ridiculing the former vice-president for often wearing a face mask, but the attacks don’t seem to have registered with anyone beyond Trump’s base.
Trump also hedged a bit on Sunday regarding how much immunity he had. “It looks like I’m immune for, I don’t know, maybe a long time, maybe a short time,” he told Bartiromo. “It could be a lifetime. Nobody really knows, but I’m immune.”
Shortly after the interview, Trump then tweeted, “A total and complete sign off from White House Doctors yesterday. That means I can’t get it (immune), and can’t give it. Very nice to know!!!” But Twitter soon flagged the tweet for spreading “misleading and potentially harmful information related to COVID-19.” In fact, the science on immunity for people who have recovered from the coronavirus isn’t yet definitive. Having had COVID-19 undoubtedly affords some amount of immunity for some period of time, but the CDC has warned that reinfection remains possible.
It’s possible that Trump understands that, but what’s much more obvious is that he now sees his immunity — however much of it there is — as yet another testament to his greatness. He insisted to Bartiromo on Sunday that he “would’ve been fine” without the top-flight medical care he received and clearly required. The president also called the experimental antibody cocktail he received — and is now hocking as a campaign giveaway to America’s suddenly Trump-wary seniors — a “miracle.” But there are no experimental antibodies that protect against political fallout, and if he doesn’t experience another miracle within the next 23 days, the only glow Trump may have left at the end of January will be from his fake tan — and it won’t provide the kind of immunity he might need.