Since Friday morning’s wee-hours announcement that Trump’s evasion of Covid-19 safety guidelines had finally caught up with him, and that he was himself now suffering from the disease he has for so long downplayed, Number 45’s health has dominated the news.
That’s not surprising, given the magnitude of the moment. After all, what happens if, say, an international crisis—such as the border skirmish now picking up steam between Armenia and Azerbaijan—tips into full-scale war, drawing in regional powers such as Turkey (a NATO member) and Russia? Who makes the call on America’s role in such a crisis, if Trump is still holding presidential powers but happens to be delirious with a high fever and can’t catch his breath?
The 25th Amendment makes clear that if a president is incapacitated, he will hand over decision-making power to the vice president. If he is incapacitated but unable to make that decision—if, say, he has been taking powerful steroids and has become too manic or otherwise unstable to govern, as Trump’s tweet-storm on Monday suggests may already be the case—the vice president and a majority of cabinet leaders can make that decision for him.
But what happens if an incumbent presidential candidate pulls out of the race for reelection—or dies—after votes have already been cast, as indeed many have? The Constitution provides no easy answer for that dilemma.
More broadly, what happens when a president, ignoring basic public health precautions such as mask-wearing and social-distancing, becomes a super-spreader, infecting the top echelons of government? And how can the Senate move forward in confirming a new Supreme Court justice when at least three members, in the wake of the celebration announcing Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination, are now suffering from Covid-19?
What is the appropriate polemical response when a man who has constantly sabotaged and mocked basic public health regulations, consistently downplayed the severity of a pandemic that he knew was lethal, tweeted to armed supporters to “liberate” states from public health measures, and held vast indoor, crowded, maskless rallies, gets sick? And how should journalists then cover the drive-by that Trump staged outside Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Sunday evening, a photo-op perhaps even more egregious than Trump’s clear-a-path-at-all-costs photo-op in Washington at the height of the George Floyd protests? Maybe we should just quote one of the attending physicians at the hospital, who tweeted that the drive was an act of “insanity” that put the Secret Service staff who accompanied him inside the hermetically sealed vehicle at high risk of getting the virus from Trump? Maybe we should start referring to him as Typhoid Trumpy.
Given all this, it’s entirely appropriate that the last few iterations of the news cycle have been dominated by the parsing of every medical statement, every inconsistency (was he diagnosed late Thursday night, as the White House claims, or on Wednesday, as his doctor seems to have suggested?). And what on earth was he doing holding fundraisers and meetings if he knew he was contagious? If that was the case, he was not simply inept but knowingly putting others in harm’s way, acting in the manner of a sociopathic.
Temporarily living life again without the nonstop soundtrack of Trumpian Noise—the tweets momentarily muted, at least until Monday’s fusillade, the barrage of Fox interviews on pause, the bilious rally speeches canceled—we could listen for a moment to the sounds of a calm, early autumn silence. In this silence, the political temperature dropped a degree or two. It felt, if only for a moment, as if the vise on American democracy had eased, the grip of a president who refuses to guarantee a peaceful transition if he loses the election, and who gives debate-stage shout-outs to fascist street-fighters who are itching to use violence against his political enemies.
Of course, that silence, the sense of calm taking hold once more, was an illusion.
Given that Election Day is now less than a month away, there are many other Signals beyond the medical updates. There is, for example, the extraordinary executive order by Texas Governor Greg Abbott to shut down all but one ballot drop box in each of the state’s counties. Ostensibly done to protect the integrity of the ballots, in reality this order makes it extremely hard for Texas residents far from drop-off sites—especially poorer residents reliant on public transit, or without the time and money to drive long distances—to cast votes in this manner. It is, in short, a brazen voter-suppression tactic.
Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania, Republicans, who control the legislature, have already taken steps to create a commission to investigate the election. They’re doing so not because of genuine problems with the vote but as preparation for a dirty political-legal maneuver to invalidate large numbers of ballots if the race in the Keystone State is close. In other words, they are creating a committee in search of a problem, one that will have subpoena and investigative power against key election agencies even as the vote and vote count are ongoing.
This is precisely the road map that Barton Gellman detailed recently in his Atlantic article explaining how the Trump team is strategizing coup-like end-runs around a popular or even an Electoral College loss by Trump.
I have no idea how Trump’s illness will play out, but I do know this: With the election now upon us, we cannot become so distracted by the daily health bulletins or clumsily staged optics (such as Trump’s signing of a blank piece of paper inside the hospital, intended to show that he was hard at work) that we forget the broader stories of the moment. There’s too much happening, too much on the line, to lose our focus now.