WASHINGTON — The spiky surface of the coronavirus may have already been invading President Trump’s cells on Tuesday night when he began to mock Joe Biden for wearing a mask while campaigning.
“Every time you see him, he’s got a mask,” the president said on the debate stage in Cleveland, while spreading his hands in front of his face to mimic the face covering. “He could be speaking 200 feet away from me and he shows up with the biggest mask I’ve ever seen.”
Three days later, it was no longer something to joke about.
Trump, who has spent much of the last eight months downplaying the threat of COVID-19, had tested positive for the virus, was flown to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, and took an experimental drug cocktail as he fought fatigue on Friday, according to his doctors.
Further jolting a political landscape that was already in overdrive, the diagnosis raised urgent questions about how the 74-year-old commander in chief would fare against the disease. It also ruptured the illusion of normalcy and recovery Trump has desperately tried to project during the pandemic in an effort to bolster his reelection prospects.
“He promised he would make it go away and now not only could he not protect us, he couldn’t even protect himself,” said Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist who worked on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign.
Aides rushed in front of TV cameras to say Trump was in “good spirits” and was still giving orders. But the president remained silent most of Friday, canceling a conference call and going dark on Twitter, even as some allies publicly pushed him to address the nation.
Trump briefly waved to reporters from the South Lawn as he walked, while wearing a mask, to Marine One to be transported to the hospital on Friday evening. “I think I’m doing very well,” he said in a video message he released later in the evening.
The diagnosis is replete with political problems in addition to the obvious health risks. It has quashed the heavy travel schedule the president hoped would bolster him in swing states. And, perhaps more worrisome for Trump, it may remind voters about his frequent disdain for masks and make clearer than ever that his cheery message on the coronavirus, which he sometimes predicts will simply “disappear,” is a mirage.
“Unfortunately in the past, the administration has downplayed the importance of these interventions, and undercut top public health agencies and top scientists, and that can’t happen any more,” said Dr. Howard Koh, the former assistant secretary for health at the Department of Health and Human Services during the Obama administration.
Trump’s illness puts coronavirus back at the very center of the presidential race, but it’s far from clear exactly what the political implications will be. It could prompt an outpouring of sympathy for the president. But it also renews focus on his handling of the virus, which is politically perilous for Trump, with voters giving him poor marks in polls on that account.
“It’s the strongest reason to vote against him,” said Stanley Greenberg, a Democratic pollster, who said COVID-19 looms large in his focus groups with people who voted for Trump four years ago, particularly for women. “It’s a huge health care crisis that he’s just lost control over.”
It also raised urgent questions about whether, in seeking to project normalcy and to convince voters that the country is bouncing back, the president and his closest advisers have held events and engaged in personal conduct that turned them into vectors of a deadly disease they insist they are trying to control.
They held a packed event at the White House on Saturday where the president nominated Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. Since then, at least six attendees of that event — Trump, Melania Trump, Senator Mike Lee of Utah, Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina, Kellyanne Conway, a former adviser to the president, and the Rev. John I. Jenkins, the president of Notre Dame — have tested positive.
In recent weeks, Trump has also returned to the campaign trail, alarming local public health officials by convening his supporters elbow to elbow.
At his most recent rally in Duluth, Minn., on Wednesday, it was difficult to tell there was a pandemic at all. Trump emerged from Air Force One without a mask on, and the vast majority of supporters who came to see him were not wearing them either. Voters squeezed into shuttle buses and security lines with no social distancing, and shouted their approval as the president took the stage.
“On Nov. 3, Minnesota will decide whether we end this pandemic, defeat the virus, and return to record prosperity,” Trump told the crowd of 3,000.
But that same evening, a top aide who was traveling with him, Hope Hicks, was beginning to feel ill. The next day, she tested positive for the disease.
The timeline raises questions about whether Trump or his top staffers knowingly put some of his own supporters in harm’s way. On Thursday, he traveled to a fund-raising event in Bedminster, N.J., after Hicks had already received a positive test. New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy has warned attendees — who reportedly paid up to $250,000 to go to the roundtable — to quarantine immediately.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said that “White House operations” had decided it was safe for Trump to travel to New Jersey even after Hicks received a positive test.
That perception of carelessness was reinforced when Trump’s family members refused to wear masks during the debate in Cleveland on Tuesday night, breaking the site’s rules. Biden’s family and guests all wore masks.
“The first family and the protective aspect around the president is a different situation than the rest of us because of the protocols around the first family,” said Alex Azar, the Health and Human Services secretary, under questioning at a House coronavirus subcommittee hearing on Friday morning.
The president’s allies are reckoning with the fact that those protocols weren’t enough to stop the virus as they wait to see if they are also infected. The campaign and White House rely on frequent rapid testing of those in Trump’s orbit, but they are often seen standing near each other without masks on.
Corey Lewandowski, a campaign aide who traveled to Duluth with the president on Wednesday, said the campaign requires supporters to wear masks at the president’s events — although such a mandate was clearly not enforced on Wednesday. He said he did not know whether the president was aware of Hicks’s diagnosis when he went to Bedminster.
“You can always play woulda, coulda, shoulda, but again, I don’t know what the timeframe was on that,” Lewandowski said.
To public health experts, the event shows the virus’s power to worm its way into any protective bubble — especially one that includes interaction with a wide range of people and inconsistent mask usage. “The real lesson here is it’s not that hard to catch,” said Dr. Robert Horsburgh, an epidemiologist at Boston University. “It’s kind of obvious that the president needed to be more careful.”
Omarosa Manigault Newman, a former aide to Trump, said she is praying for Trump’s health but hopes the diagnosis will lead Trump and his team to rethink their approach to the disease.
“I would hope that the president would use this as an opportunity to stop undermining the medical and scientific communities and be more responsible as he leads this country through this crisis,” Newman said.
The diagnosis has upended Trump’s campaign plans for at least two weeks, postponing rallies in Florida and Wisconsin this weekend and more events in Arizona and Texas next week. It’s unclear whether he will be able to participate in the second presidential debate in Miami in two weeks.
The illness also eats into core components of Trump’s self-projected persona: infallible strength and macho stamina. It’s an image he often uses to contrast himself with Biden, whom he paints as “slow” and “sleepy.” His Republican allies attempted to assure the public that the president’s energy would carry him through the disease, which has killed more than 200,000 Americans so far.
“He’s stronger than 10 acres of garlic,” said Representative Mike Kelly of Pennsylvania. “And I’ll tell you what, I don’t see him taking a day off or even a play off.”
A speedy recovery could fire up Trump’s fans and bolster his image among them as a tough fighter.
“His whole thing is about strength,” said Doug Heye, a Republican political strategist. “And so if he emerges from this in good health very quickly you can see him with a big 'S' on his shirt and the campaign selling T-shirts that say that.”