Donald and Melania Trump have tested positive for Covid-19 and gone into quarantine, the White House has announced. The couple had already committed to quarantining following the news on Thursday (1 October) that Hope Hicks, a close aide to the president who had travelled with him earlier this week, had herself tested positive. It is not clear whether the president contracted the virus from her (the incubation period for the virus can be up to 14 days and an individual can be infectious from two days before symptoms appear). It is also not clear whether other members of the presidential entourage have Covid-19.
The news throws into disarray an election campaign that had already been disrupted by the pandemic and Trump’s own attempts to undermine its legitimacy. Polling day is 3 November, one month from tomorrow, and early voting has already begun in some states. The statement by the president’s doctor implies that he is currently asymptomatic and disclosed that he would “continue carrying out his duties without disruption while recovering”. Guidelines from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stipulate that Covid-19 patients should isolate for at least ten days from the date of a positive test or the onset of symptoms (whichever is later), and that those who have been in close contact with them should do so for 14 days.
That would rule out Trump’s upcoming rallies – he was due in Florida today, Wisconsin on Saturday and Pennsylvania on Sunday – and probably his second scheduled televised debate with Joe Biden on 15 October. It might also rule out other events involving those who have been in the president’s proximity recently, including the start of Senate hearings for Amy Coney Barrett, Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court seat left vacant by the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It will presumably also restrict 77-year-old Biden, in light of the first TV debate between the two men on Tuesday (29 September). Trump is currently lagging behind Biden in the polls (our tracker puts them on 45 per cent and 53 per cent respectively and our results projection gives Biden a four-in-five chance of winning) and the Democratic candidate has a particularly strong lead on responding to Covid-19 in issues polling.
Trump is not the first international leader to become infected with Covid-19. Boris Johnson in the UK and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, both men who, like Trump, have at times downplayed the severity of the pandemic, did so in the spring and summer respectively. That the former was (briefly) in intensive care is a reminder of the continuity-of-government questions that could now arise. At the age of 74 and overweight, Trump is in a high-risk group. Who would take over were he to become incapacitated? Next in the line of succession is vice-president Mike Pence, who may too have been exposed to the virus. And after him would come House of Representatives speaker Nancy Pelosi. Whether power would transfer as smoothly as that, in the absence of a firm legal definition of “incapacitated” and against the backdrop of widespread rule- and norm-breaking by Trump and his administration, is an open question.
Many are now, understandably, raising the president’s dismissal of the dangers of Covid-19 and reckless public appearances over the past weeks and months. In the debate on Tuesday the president mocked Biden for his mask wearing (“I don’t wear a mask like him; every time you see him, he’s got a mask”), and his entourage in the audience conspicuously ignored the requirement to wear theirs. Trump’s mass campaign rallies have been described as super-spreader events for their lack of social distancing or mask use. It is to be hoped that the president’s test result might prompt his administration and supporters to take the pandemic more seriously.
But America’s politics is poisonous enough at the moment without the gleeful schadenfreude now being expressed by some on social media. Pointing out that the rules and recommendations are there for a reason and should be heeded, and that the president failed to do so, is one thing. But characterising the virus in terms of just deserts is an insult to the hundreds of thousands who have died from it. And nor is it politically helpful. Trump’s incompetent and venal management of the virus, his complacent refusal to take it seriously, his contribution to America’s disgracefully and avoidably high death toll; none of it changes because Trump himself has tested positive. It is perfectly consistent to wish him and his wife, like anyone else with the virus, a speedy recovery and at the same time to continue to call out him and his administration in the strongest possible terms for their unforgivable failings. It is in that spirit that Trump’s critics and opponents should proceed.