“At the best of times, Trumpworld operates with all the strategic direction of a chicken with its head cut off,” a senior Republican official told me. “Right now, they’re operating like a chicken with its head cut off, lit on fire, and thrown off a cliff.”
The world has heard little from Donald Trump since he announced, just before 1 a.m. on Friday, that he has been diagnosed with COVID-19. Usually it’s the tweets that cause concern, but today it’s been the lack of them.
According to a senior White House official, Trump has been “active” today, even as his doctors are “encouraging him to rest.” Famously, Trump does not enjoy physical movement, and the official told me that “active” in this case means he has been talking to members of his staff and members of Congress by phone. “His symptoms are mild,” the official said. Late Friday afternoon, the president’s physician described him as “fatigued but in good spirits” after receiving “a single eight-gram dose of Regeneron’s polyclonal antibody cocktail. He completed the infusion without incident.” He added that the president was also taking “zinc, vitamin D, famotidine, melatonin, and daily aspirin.” Friday evening he flew to Walter Reed medical center “out of an abundance of caution” where he’ll be “working from the presidential offices…for the next few days,” press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said. This has been the story from the White House today: to downplay the president’s diagnosis just as he has downplayed the country’s diagnosis for the past nine months.
It goes without saying that this was avoidable. While it’s true that even the most cautious person could be unlucky and could contract the virus despite going to great lengths to avoid it, President Trump was, proudly, very much not that.
He has never taken this pandemic seriously, not even as his advisers warned him that he should, not even as bodies piled up in hospitals in his hometown, as the death ticker recorded hundreds and then thousands and then hundreds of thousands of dead Americans.
The world listened as the president cast doubt on the very notion that the virus was something to fear, as he undermined his own public-health officials, as he contradicted their advice with what his gut instinct told him about the science he did not understand, free-associating about sunlight and disinfectants and hydroxychloroquine. We observed the president violating the medical recommendations that his administration had offered the public. He rarely wore a face mask; he traveled needlessly, including to parts of the country where the virus was spiking; he met at close range with large groups of people, few of them wearing protective gear, either.
The most powerful man in the world is, under ordinary circumstances, also the most protected. He is guarded with snipers and bomb-sniffing dogs. Anyplace he goes, any room he’ll set foot in, is swept by security. Any person he’s expected to meet is scanned for weapons. His food is tested for contamination. He is so well cared for by doctors that they might as well be monitoring his heart’s every beat. That he is now infected by COVID-19 is a testament not to the strength of the virus, not to the failures of his White House staff, but to his carelessness. How can you protect someone who refuses to be protected?
He risked not only his own health but the health of others around him. This was true before his diagnosis. In June, he insisted on holding an indoor rally in Tulsa, which led to swelling numbers of infections in the city. At least one guest at that event, Herman Cain, would later die from the virus after spending time on a ventilator in Georgia. Trump escaped without harm, but he couldn’t help but push his luck. After his closest adviser, Hope Hicks, showed signs that she had COVID-19, forcing her to isolate on the flight back from a MAGA rally, the president and other members of his staff made the decision to travel to Bedminster, New Jersey, anyway, where he hosted a fundraiser and met with his supporters. When Hicks tested positive, she worried about others around her who might be infected, too, but the White House sought to keep that information from the public. Without Jennifer Jacobs, a dogged Bloomberg reporter who broke the story about Hicks’s illness, the world might still be in the dark about the sickness sweeping through the West Wing and the highest levels of our government. And then there are the indirect effects of the president’s actions, the ripples through society that threaten to touch each one of us. A Trump campaign volunteer who refuses to wear a face mask on principle and who believes the media has overblown the threat of the virus told me the president’s diagnosis didn’t make her nervous at all. “I don’t deny the virus is out there,” she said. “I’m just crossing my fingers and going for the herd immunity.”
We do not yet know the extent of the damage in Washington. Much of this is not a function of the strange way the virus spreads from person to person, but of the unethical way the president governs without transparency. For instance, it’s not possible to compile a complete list of people the president has come into contact with over the last two weeks because the Trump administration refuses to release visitor logs for the White House. Multiple attendees at the Rose Garden event for Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court, Amy Coney Barrett (who herself recovered from the virus this summer), have already announced that they’ve since gotten sick. Multiple reporters in the White House press pool have tested positive for the virus today, according to the White House Correspondents’ Association. We do not yet know how many White House officials will contract it, whether the virus will rip through Capitol Hill, or how far this threatens the presidential line of succession.
The Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, and his running mate, Kamala Harris, both announced that they had tested negative for the virus today. But viewers who suffered through Tuesday’s presidential debate in Cleveland will recall watching as the president shouted at Biden across the stage, in an enclosed space, for 90 minutes. Although the Cleveland Clinic mandated that all guests within the perimeter of the debate wear face coverings, the president’s family members ignored that warning and declined to accept the masks offered to them by organizers. For months, the Biden campaign has been preoccupied with protecting him from exposure to the virus, worried not only for his health, but about the optics if he were to get sick, which would confirm the attacks Trump has hurled at him for being old and weak. His “basement campaign” has been a source of mockery from his opponents, who never acknowledge why he’s stuck at home like much of the rest of the country. But with a general election under way, the Biden campaign could not protect its candidate from exposure to the president. Not completely. We cannot yet be sure that Biden is safe or that the people around him are safe. At this point, we can’t really be sure of anything.
And so the discourse descends into chaos, with QAnon and deep-state kooks on one side and even the most intelligent and reasonable people trafficking in conspiracy theories on the other. Can you blame anyone? This is the result of five years of lies and distortions and alternative facts. With 32 days left before Election Day, whatever confidence remained in our system has been further undermined by this colossal display of idiocy. The Republic collapses not with a bang but with a million stupid decisions by the most powerful people.
“Same as it always is,” said the senior Republican official. “One could argue that’s nothing new. Just the degree of severity.”
This post has been updated to include additional reporting.