fb-pixel Skip to main content

President Trump’s stunning announcement overnight triggered swift and wide-ranging reaction early Friday, as the country and the world struggled to comprehend the enormous ramifications of the leader of the free world contracting COVID-19 just weeks before an election.

Thoughts and prayers and political calculations poured in, from expressions of good wishes for the health of the president and first lady Melania Trump, who also tested positive, to speculation about the future of the presidential campaign, to concerns about national security. Stocks plummeted after the news broke: the Dow fell 406 points, or 1.5 percent, and the S&P 500 was down 1.6 percent in early morning trading.

Advertisement



“There’s the political story obviously, a White House that has minimized the virus and not done the basic things to protect itself and staff,” said Juliette Kayyem, a homeland security expert who served as an assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security during the Obama administration.

But she said the president testing positive for COVID-19 doesn’t make her worry about the broader operations of the United States government.

“Just taking a step back, I think from the ‘what does this mean for us?’ question, we have constitutional and statutory infrastructure in place. My DEFCON is not up. We’re not at red alert,” she said during a 3 a.m. telephone interview with the Globe.

“I’m not saying this is not serious. But from an operational perspective, we have a plan. The United States has a plan," said Kayyem, who is a senior lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

The news also set off speculation about the particular course of the president’s case. A White House official said Trump was experiencing “mild” symptoms of the coronavirus, according to the Associated Press. Roughly half of those infected experience no symptoms, but can continue to spread the virus for around 14 days after infection, according to a tweet by Dr. Jeremy Faust, an ER physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. About 10 percent of patients overall require hospitalization, with 1.5 percent needing intensive care.

Advertisement



Republic National Committee chairwoman Ronna McDaniel also tested positive for coronavirus; Mike Pence, Jared Kushner, and Ivanka Trump all tested negative, according to the White House.

Trump will have access to the best medical care in the country, and he is statistically likely to recover, but the potential gravity of the situation provoked discussion of worst-case scenarios. No presidential candidate or president-elect has died during the election process, said Bruce Schulman, a professor of history at Boston University. (Only once did a vice-presidential candidate die, in 1912 — the ticket ultimately lost.)

Some presidents have also held back significant health information, most notably John F. Kennedy, who suffered from Addison’s disease and took serious medications for it. No one in the general public knew of his ailments until after his death, Schulman said.

But over time, the American people have come to expect a higher level of transparency from presidential candidates and presidents, both financially and in terms of personal health, Schulman said.

“The expectations of greater transparency have become norms,” Schulman said. But Trump has not provided either tax records or detailed medical records, suggesting “those norms were not by themselves powerful and widely accepted, because he hasn’t suffered any consequences of not following those norms.”

Tim Naftali, a presidential historian speaking on CNN, said the announcement marks the first time in US history that both the president and the first lady have been diagnosed with such a serious disease.

Advertisement



“That puts us in a new moment in political history,” he said.

Some reacted with skepticism about whether Trump’s positive test was real, or was, as he might put it, “fake news.” “

It’s telling of the level of mistrust that exists that the first thought that many Americans had when they find out the president’s tested positive for covid is that he’s probably faking it,” said Steven Levitsky, a Harvard political scientist and co-author of the book “How Democracies Die.” Levitsky said it was highly unlikely that the results were fake, but the conspiracy theories attest to the credibility deficit that Trump has helped to fuel in the public.

White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, who did not wear a mask when he emerged to speak to reporters in front of the White House, said Trump and the First Lady “remain in good spirits."

He declined to say whether Trump was taking hydroxychloroquine, a malaria drug that the president has frequently touted as a treatment for COVID-19 but which studies have found provides little benefit as a treatment.

He repeatedly stressed that the president remains engaged in his work.




Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis “creates massive uncertainty” not just for Trump’s re-election prospects but also for the continuity of the federal government, said Ryan Williams, a former aide to Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, including through both his presidential runs.

Advertisement



“The president needs to show the nation that the government is still functioning properly, and that he’s taking his health seriously and putting in the time to rest and recuperate," Williams said. "This is a time more than ever to step away from political activity.”

That said, the development is tough news for Trump’s presidential campaign, particularly given polls that find voters disapprove of his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

“He won’t be able to escape a prolonged discussion about his coronavirus response between now and Election Day, and it just underscores some of the effects of the cavalier approach he’s taken personally to dealing with the disease — not wearing masks, not having his staff wear masks, not following the protocols recommended by his own CDC," said Williams.

At Tuesday’s debate, Trump was in an enclosed space with about 80 people in the audience, all of whom had tested negative for COVID beforehand. One of those viewers, a Biden supporter who had been invited to the debate to represent her dad who died of COVID-19 in Arizona, released a searing statement on Friday morning.

“Trump has no regard for human life,” wrote Kristin Urquiza, the cofounder of “Marked by Covid," an advocacy group. “So in a way, it was not surprising to learn that I’ve now been exposed to COVID by The Donald himself as I sat about 15 feet away from him.”

Advertisement





Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker issued a statement saying both he and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito wish Trump and the First Lady a speedy recovery. “Covid-19 remains a dangerous virus that has proven to be incredibly contagious, and we urge all residents to be vigilant in their daily activities to stay safe and healthy,” Baker said.

The news also was met with a heavy measure of schadenfreude for a president who once sought to downplay the threat of the virus.

“HCQ or I.V. Bleach and UV light?” tweeted Harvard epidemiologist Michael Mina, a reference to disproven and potentially dangerous COVID-19 treatments that Trump has suggested in the past — some of which he now claims was said sarcastically.

Vice President Mike Pence tweeted his well wishes early Friday.

Dr. Ashish Jha, the director of the Brown University School of Public Health, called the news a “nightmare" and wished the president and first lady well.

Foreign officials also sent their well wishes. Prime Minister Boris Johnson of the United Kingdom, who himself was sick with COVID-19 earlier this year, tweeted he hopes the president and first lady make a speedy recovery.


Representative Joe Kennedy III suggested Trump’s illness could serve as a teaching moment.







Joshua Miller and Christina Prignano of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.


Zoe Greenberg can be reached at zoe.greenberg@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @zoegberg. Victoria McGrane can be reached at victoria.mcgrane@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @vgmac.