How Trump's Covid diagnosis could alter the crucial lead up to polls

Trump's illness prompted the White House to cancel political events on Friday, including a rally planned outside Orlando, Florida

President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference at the White House. Photo: AP/PTI
President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference at the White House. Photo: AP/PTI

Donald Trump’s Covid-19 diagnosis has dramatically altered the closing weeks of the US presidential campaign, with the president now facing not only an unprecedented health challenge but also logistical and staffing chaos about a month before Election Day.

Trump’s illness prompted the White House to cancel political events on Friday, including a rally planned outside Orlando, Florida.
Campaign and fundraising trips scheduled for the coming days -- including visits to key battlegrounds including Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Nevada -- are expected to be scrapped as the president remains isolated at the White House.

Trump leans on his in-person political events to raise cash and create enthusiasm among supporters as he tries to make up ground against Democratic nominee Joe Biden, who leads in polls and fundraising in no small part due to the president’s response to the virus now afflicting him.

Trump had hoped to turn the focus of the final weeks of the campaign away from the pandemic and toward his Supreme Court nominee, the economic recovery and civil unrest -- issues where he believes he holds an advantage. But without his signature rallies and other public events, which he uses to draw media attention, it will be harder to close the gap with Biden. The former vice president has held a steady lead of about 7 percentage points in national polls for some time.

Now, the weeks ahead are sure to be dominated by constant discussion of Trump’s health, turning attention back to a pandemic most Americans think he’s mishandled.

His political concerns are only compounded by the immediate risk of the virus to Trump, a 74-year-old now fighting a disease that has killed more than 200,000 Americans since February. Even if the president’s infection doesn’t progress beyond the mild, cold-like symptoms he’s currently experiencing, he’ll be challenged to keep both the public and financial markets calm as he tries to wage his come-from-behind campaign while sequestered in the White House residence.

The S&P 500 Index dropped more than 1% and the tech-heavy Nasdaq 100 fared even worse in early trading Friday morning. Trump’s announcement that he was infected came hours after a Bloomberg News report that Hope Hicks, one of his closest aides, had fallen ill with the virus.

The implications of the president’s diagnosis are also likely to impact his Democratic challenger, beyond inserting a major new variable into an already unpredictable campaign.

Biden will need to decide whether he too should quarantine, after sharing a debate stage with the president just 72 hours before his positive test. Biden’s campaign has said the former vice president is tested regularly and that they would announce if he contracted the virus.

Biden is scheduled to travel to Grand Rapids, Michigan, on Friday to deliver remarks on his economic agenda and then participate in a voter mobilization event. A decision hasn’t been made whether to continue with the trip but his departure was delayed.

Even if Biden and his team avoided exposure at the first debate, they face the challenge of navigating the historic development as voters across the nation begin to cast ballots. The Democratic nominee will need to strike the right tone, making sure not to appear to revel in his opponent’s illness while continuing to assail the president’s attitude and policies toward the virus.

The lone statement from Biden early Friday was a tweet wishing the president and first lady well.

In the past, presidents have seen their poll numbers improve in the aftermath of health scares, and the president may be rewarded if voters rally around him. President Ronald Reagan’s approval in the Washington Post-ABC News poll rose 11 percentage points after a failed assassination attempt in his first term.

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson -- who battled the virus in April -- saw a sharp increase in popularity after his diagnosis. More than half of Britons -- 51% - said they had a favorable opinion of the prime minister in the day after his infection, up 17 points from the prior month, according to Ipsos MORI.

But US voters may have a different outlook on Trump, who has flouted the advice of public health authorities. The president seldom wears a mask and he’s defiantly resumed holding large campaign rallies, even when state and local officials have implored him not to. In a Reuters poll released earlier this week, just 41% of voters said they approved of the way Trump was handling the pandemic.

And the president is likely to face criticism for his decision to travel Thursday to New Jersey for a fundraiser at his Bedminster golf course -- despite Hicks testing positive for the virus and displaying symptoms aboard Air Force One the previous night. Despite that exposure, Trump pushed ahead with travel in which he shared enclosed spaces with key staffers and Republican donors.
New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy urged attendees at the fundraiser “to take full precautions, including self-quarantining and getting tested.”

Trump wasn’t the only White House official facing questions Friday about when he knew about Hicks and what he did afterward.
White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany held a briefing for White House reporters Thursday morning at which she didn’t wear a mask, even after having close contact with Hicks the day before. She said Friday that she was not aware before the briefing that Hicks had tested positive.

McEnany was seen wearing a mask at the White House on Friday.

Biden and Trump sparred over virus precautions including mask-wearing during Tuesday’s debate, with the former vice president calling the president a “fool” and “totally irresponsible” for discouraging preventive measures. Trump responded by mocking his Democratic challenger for being too cautious.

“I don’t wear masks like him,” Trump said. “Every time you see him, he’s got a mask. He could be speaking 200 feet away from me, and he shows up with the biggest mask I’ve ever seen.”

Trump’s diagnosis could prove especially tricky because of the president’s public messaging about the virus. He has urged Americans to return to work and school, frequently downplaying the risk that any individual will get infected or die. If he and his wife are fortunate and experience no symptoms or mild illness, the president may be further emboldened.

Trump could also face a dilemma over whether to withdraw from the race if his health deteriorates. In 2016, after the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape, senior Republicans investigated the logistics required to replace Trump atop the ticket with Mike Pence.

But this year, more than 30 states have already sent ballots to voters, with more kicking off early voting in the coming days. 

Trump’s physician said early Friday he expected “the president to continue carrying out his duties without disruption while recovering,” but the implications of the diagnosis are far-reaching.

It’s unclear but unlikely that Trump can participate in the second presidential debate, scheduled for Oct. 15. The president’s campaign didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment about its plans, but if Trump is forced to pull out of the debate, it could deprive him of one of his final opportunities to highlight his contrasts with Biden before a large television audience.

Surveys conducted by television networks following the first, chaotic debate showed that voters viewed the Democrat as the winner.
The president’s diagnosis is also expected to have a significant impact on campaign and White House staff, who -- if they follow existing federal health guidelines -- may need to quarantine for the next two weeks.

The president, First Lady Melania Trump, and Hicks traveled with a large cadre of White House and campaign staff to the first presidential debate Tuesday night in Cleveland, with the president and Hicks also attending political events Wednesday in Minnesota.

Those spotted in the president’s company in recent days include campaign manager Bill Stepien, senior aides Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner and Stephen Miller, as well as top communications aides Jason Miller and Kayleigh McEnany.

“Contract tracing is being done and the appropriate notifications and recommendations will be made,” White House spokesman Judd Deere said.

The diagnosis may also hamstring Trump’s ability to raise cash for the final weeks of the campaign, even as Biden’s campaign set another fundraising record in September, surpassing the unprecedented $365 million it raised in August. Trump fell $154 million short of Biden in August, and his campaign has pulled back on television advertising in swing states even as the Democrat fills the airwaves.

Trump has tried to bridge that gap with high-dollar in-person fundraisers. His luncheon event Thursday in New Jersey raised $5 million, according to a Republican official.