These last few days in American politics have been unparalleled. No other sitting president has been hospitalised a month before a US election, as Donald Trump has been, yet Sunday evening brought some even more astonishing scenes. While undergoing treatment for Covid-19, Trump left the medical centre where he is resting to take a drive outside so he could wave to his supporters and thank them for being “great patriots”. Which other leader in the Western world would do this?
Trump’s detractors have claimed this was just another example of his irresponsible and reckless attitude towards the virus, as he potentially exposed his own Secret Service detail to the disease by sitting in a car with them. His audacious style of leadership is exactly why Trump’s supporters love him, however, and I believe this episode shows that Trump could be poised to turn disaster into triumph.
When the news broke last week that the President and First Lady had been diagnosed with Covid-19, my mind shot straight back to Boris Johnson’s brush with the condition in March. He deteriorated over a few days until he was admitted to hospital and then put into an intensive care unit. The nation was in shock and prayers were said for him. While there are some potentially difficult days to come for Trump, the signs are that he is recovering pretty quickly, which is good.
Health apart, however, I was very worried about his campaign when I heard about his diagnosis. His great strength is travelling America to appear at rally after rally. He does this brilliantly, but it seems unlikely he will be back on the road for at least two of the next four weeks. This in turn means that Covid-19 is now likely to dominate the campaign rather than law and order or the economy, which are his strongest suits.
On top of this, Joe Biden believes Covid-19 to be his winning issue. In the first presidential debate, he accused Trump of being complacent, irresponsible and cavalier, pointing to his scepticism of facemasks. Recent scenes in the Rose Garden of the White House when Amy Coney Barrett was announced as the nominee Supreme Court justice have only played into Biden’s hands. It is not at all helpful to Trump that prominent Republicans like Utah Senator Mike Lee hugged people on that occasion. On the face of it, therefore, this nasty surprise has harmed the Trump campaign and suggests that the pollsters are right about a Biden win on November 3.
We've been here before, however. Two days before the second presidential debate in 2016, the Access Hollywood tapes broke. In these undercover recordings, Trump made some highly disobliging comments about women which led immediately to his candidacy being disavowed by sitting senators and congressmen from his own party. I was in the spin room on the night of the subsequent debate in St Louis and Trump’s defenders could be counted on the fingers of one hand: an experience I recall in the second episode of 'The Trump Card', a three-part Telegraph podcast in which I give listeners the inside track on the President and which you can listen to now on the audio player below. At the time I did my best to point out that he wasn't running for Pope, but effectively he'd become an independent candidate. The situation looked hopeless. Yet, unbelievably, he engineered a Harry Houdini-like escape and won the election. Could he do it again? I believe so.
There are strong hints already that, health-allowing, Trump will use his illness to take control of the Covid agenda. He has already said that he has learnt a good deal on his “very interesting journey” with the virus, and I expect him to turn things around so that he can speak about it with the voice of experience in a way that his rival, Joe Biden, cannot.
I also anticipate that Trump will once again condemn China for causing this global crisis and point out that Biden has encouraged the Chinese regime in every way over decades of his political career. I believe Trump will say that, aged 74 and perhaps carrying a few excess pounds, he has overcome the virus - as do the vast majority of people who contract it. And I think he will eulogise about the medical advances that have been made to treat this condition and to promise that a vaccine will be available very soon.
This last message will hark back to a familiar slogan most famously uttered by Franklin D. Roosevelt during his 1933 inauguration speech - that the only thing the American people have to fear is fear itself. Trump’s pitch will be that he is the leader to get America moving again and his own personal trial with Covid-19 makes him stronger and even more determined to achieve this.
If Donald Trump can take control of the agenda, he can succeed in squeezing Biden out of this contest. Those who bet the house against Donald Trump generally lose. Nobody should underestimate his ability once again to turn this setback into a victory.