Just hours after telling attendees at the Alfred E Smith Memorial Foundation’s annual dinner that an end to the pandemic was in sight, Donald Trump’s name was added to the long list of those who’ve been afflicted by it.
Like so many of the consequential announcements he has made during his presidency, Trump broke the news that he – along with his wife Melania – had tested positive for Covid-19 with a post to his Twitter account shortly before 1am on Friday. An official announcement came roughly 10 minutes later, under the signature of Commander Sean Conley, the Navy Medical Corps officer who serves as physician to the president.
According to Trumpworld sources, political strategists, and other Washington insiders, the president’s disclosure of his positive Covid-19 test may well have had another purpose: announcing the de facto end of his hopes of re-election.
The more public-facing members of Trump’s White House staff have largely attempted to give the impression of business as usual. Addressing reporters outside the West Wing on Friday, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows characterised the president’s symptoms as “mild” and his mood as being “in good spirits” as he spent the day in quarantine, working out of the White House residence, even as he cautioned that other White House staffers would almost certainly test positive for the virus.
Indeed, when Meadows first began speaking to reporters outside the White House (sans mask), the first thing he mentioned was not Covid-related, but instead the recently released unemployment numbers from last month.
Other White House officials, including National Economic Council director Larry Kudlow and Trump’s top trade adviser Peter Navarro, continued the administration’s attempt to focus attention on the economy with appearances before the press both in person and on the phone. During an attempt to hold a conference call with reporters about the president’s “buy American” policies, Navarro angrily ended the question-and-answer session when a reporter appeared to begin asking a question about the testing program for White House staffers.
But some of those in Trump’s orbit whose jobs do not include carrying his message to the press were more circumspect about what testing positive for Covid-19 means for the president’s immediate future.
“He’s f**ked, we’re f**ked,” said one White House aide who is not authorised to speak publicly. “No matter what we do, the next two weeks or more will be about him not being able to protect himself or us from Covid.”
When informed of the Biden campaign’s announcement that the former VP and his wife, Dr Jill Biden, had both tested negative, the aide replied: “Double f**ked.”
Michael Starr Hopkins, a Democratic strategist, also opined that Trump’s positive diagnosis spells the end of his campaign’s attempt to get Americans to focus on anything other than the pandemic.
“Any hope he had of being able to change the conversation to things like protesters or the economy are all shot. And getting infected with Covid after standing on a stage at a presidential debate, mocking Joe Biden for wearing a mask, and then going to Bedminster knowing that he was potentially infected is – I think that that's just gonna be the end of it for voters,” he said.–
Former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci, who has become a vocal Trump critic since his stint on Trump’s staff ended, said the president contracting the virus “is almost Mother Nature’s way of sending a signal that there’s something severely wrong with our society and what is going on right now”.
“He’s lied about the science, he’s lied about the marks, and it’s a result of his leadership that there’s hundreds of thousands of people who have died as a result … and hopefully this will be symbolism for people when they go to the voting booth,” he continued, adding that Trump’s dismissal of basic public health measures has been “almost criminally negligent” because it “set up a culture of unscientific dishonesty inside the White House”. That could be especially damaging to the president, considering poll upon poll which shows Americans trust Biden far more when it comes to handling the coronavirus pandemic.
But Howard Dean, the physician and former Vermont governor who chaired the Democratic National Committee from 2005 to 2009, said it’s possible that Trump’s campaign could see a boost from sympathy afforded to him as a victim of the pandemic.
“We have our very strong political differences, but it's hard not to be sympathetic with a victim of Covid,” said Dean, who discounted the possibility that Trump contracting the coronavirus would have any effect on his core base of supporters. He did, however, agree that a presidential Covid diagnosis will preclude any further attempts by Trump’s campaign or the White House to move the pandemic off the front page.
Dean added that the full impact of Trump’s illness on the race won’t be known until we find out more about the course the disease takes with the president because “the medical lens really informs the political lens”, but opined that the president will no longer be able to act as if the virus will simply go away.
“We just can’t possibly predict what’s going to happen here,” he said. “But the happy talk is over.”