I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum — then “my take.” You can read Tangle for free, subscribe for Friday editions and you can reach me anytime by replying to this email. If someone sent you this email, they’re asking you to sign up. You can do that by clicking here.
Today’s read: 13 minutes.
An update on Trump’s health, plus a question about what this does to the election.
Screenshot of Trump’s video address to America, which got nearly 40 million views on Twitter.
On Thursday, I wrote that ABC’s Martha Raddatz was moderating the second presidential debate. In fact, the moderator for the second debate is C-SPAN’s Steve Scully (Raddatz moderated the second debate in 2016). I also wrote in the numbers section two statistics: that 4,200 children in New York had lost a parent to COVID-19 between March and July and that 325,000 children nationally have been forced into poverty or near poverty due to the pandemic. In fact, and unfortunately, the 325,000 children forced into poverty or near poverty is in just New York alone, not nationally, according to this report.
These are the 16th and 17th Tangle corrections in its 58-week existence, and the first correction since September 22nd. I track corrections in an effort to be transparent and plan to stop counting when the number becomes embarrassing.
- A series of positive coronavirus tests for several Republican senators has raised doubts about the Senate’s ability to quickly confirm Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, whose placement on the court before the election seemed far more likely early last week.
- The first extensive post-debate poll saw Joe Biden’s lead grow to 14 points over Donald Trump, according to NBC/Wall Street Journal. “Mr. Biden’s 14-point lead compares with an 8-point advantage last month and 11 points in July, which was his largest of the campaign at that time,” WSJ reported.
- Cal Cunningham, North Carolina’s Democratic candidate for the Senate, conceded that intimate text messages to a woman that was not his wife were authentic on Friday. Cunningham is in a close race against Republican Thom Tillis in a state where the Trump campaign is asking election officials to ignore rules about how to count the vote.
- In the meantime, Democrats are beating Republicans in advertisement spending in Senate races. Axios reports that Democrats are outspending Republican in nine of the 10 most competitive races.
- President Trump seems to be ramping up pressure on Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin to strike a deal with Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on a second COVID-19 relief package.
What D.C. is talking about.
President Donald Trump’s health. On Friday, Tangle covered the news that Donald Trump, Melania Trump and top White House advisor Hope Hicks had all contracted COVID-19. Since then, several top Republicans and members of the White House team have also tested positive: Sens. Mike Lee (R-UT), Thom Tillis (R-NC), and Ron Johnson (R-WI); Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, former counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway, Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien, Trump debate advisor and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Trump’s personal assistant Nick Luna. Notre Dame President Fr. John Jenkins, who attended the Rose Garden event for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, also tested positive.
As I was writing this newsletter, news broke that Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, tested positive for COVID-19 this morning. She is now entering quarantine and will be working remotely.
Shortly after Tangle went out on Friday, President Trump was transferred to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. On Friday night, sources inside the White House began leaking to the press that Trump’s condition was worse than he or his closest advisors were letting on — including a fever and a drop in oxygen levels that required supplemental oxygen to be administered. On Saturday morning, a team of White House doctors told the press that the president’s condition was improving rapidly. Then, in off-the-record comments shortly after, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said “The president’s vitals over the last 24 hours were very concerning and the next 48 hours will be critical in terms of his care. We’re still not on a clear path to a full recovery.”
Meadows asked not to be identified while giving his comments to the media. But then, in on-the-record remarks, he gave a much rosier assessment, saying Trump was doing “very well” and doctors were “pleased” with his vital signs. Reporters immediately began identifying Meadows as the source for the conflicting information. Later on Saturday, Dr. Sean Conley repeatedly evaded questions about whether the president had been given supplemental oxygen to treat his condition. He also said Trump was 72 hours into his diagnosis, meaning he would have known he was infected on Wednesday night (before attending a New Jersey fundraiser on Thursday). Then Conley clarified his statements, saying he meant they were three days into the diagnosis (Thursday, Friday and Saturday), not a full 72 hours.
On Sunday, more conflicting messages came out. Doctors told the press that Trump’s condition was improving significantly, even suggesting he may be ready to leave the hospital on Monday and get back to the White House. At the same time, they also informed the press Trump had taken dexamethasone, a generic steroid that’s been successful in treating patients who are severely ill, have difficulty breathing or require oxygen. Other experts who have treated COVID-19 patients say they are mystified as to how he might be discharged today.
Dr. Conley also addressed the press again, saying he didn’t previously disclose the more serious details of Trump’s condition because “I was trying to reflect the upbeat attitude that the team, that the president, through this course of illness, has had. I didn’t want to give any information that would steer the course of illness in another direction and in doing so it came off that we were trying to hide something, which wasn’t necessarily true.”
Later on Sunday, Trump took a motorcade ride in an SUV to wave to supporters who had gathered outside Walter Reed hospital, which set off criticism that the president was endangering secret service staff who had to escort and drive him through the crowd. The president has posted video updates from Walter Reed, including one yesterday where he said, “I learned a lot about COVID. I learned it by really going to school. This is the real school. This isn’t the let’s-read-the-books school. And I get it and I understand it.”
Joe Biden has been tested three times for COVID-19 since Friday and all of his tests have been negative, according to his team. Attorney General William Barr, who was exposed to several Republicans and White House staffers who tested positive, is now in quarantine. Because three senators have tested positive, votes in the Senate have been canceled for two weeks, and it’s unclear if or when the Senate will be able to move forward on the vote for Trump’s Supreme Court nominee before the election.
Both the right and left have become critical of the White House messaging on Trump’s health and how difficult it has been to get clarity about what his condition is. This is one of the few times I’ve seen both sides so closely aligned on an issue as sensitive as this in recent memory.
What the right is saying.
They’re insisting on more transparency, but not necessarily assigning the weekend missteps to anything nefarious. The Wall Street Journal editorial board wrote that the conflicting comments and confusion from Mark Meadows and Dr. Conley “sound more like mistakes than deliberate attempts to deceive,” but insisted it’s crucial the White House be forthcoming and hold daily briefings on Trump’s health.
“Some matters may need to be kept from the public for reasons of personal privacy, but then make that clear,” the board said. “That cannot include such basic issues as the status of Mr. Trump’s disease, the seriousness of his symptoms, and the details of his treatment regimen. The media have medical specialists on call who will quickly second guess every non-disclosure, often with political malice aforethought.”
In The Washington Examiner, Kaylee McGhee said calling the updates about Trump’s health “the most important story in the world right now would be an understatement.” Unfortunately, she wrote, “no one is sure” if these updates are true.
“We have no reason not to believe Conley when he says he misspoke,” McGhee said. “But these are serious contradictions that not only undermine the credibility of the White House, but shake the confidence of the American public. Like him or not, Trump is our president. He is the leader of this nation, and if his health is in danger, we ought to know. But right now, no one knows who or what to believe.”
Also in the WSJ, Bob Brody called on Trump to become a champion of social distancing protocol. Brody, who has run media relations campaigns on public health issues, says a celebrity who embodies a given condition is the most effective at messaging information around that condition to the public.
“He can transform himself into a strong advocate for individual responsibility to combat the pandemic: urging Americans to follow all the standard recommended protocols, from frequent hand-washing to wearing a mask and social distancing,” Brody said. “Doing so would not only be a smart political move but also a monumental service to the nation, clinically and economically.”
What the left is saying.
The left is calling for more transparency, and pointing out that the details of Trump’s diagnosis are crucial to understanding both the trajectory of his recovery and how he handled the initial realization that he had COVID-19. “The American people deserve the truth,” The New York Times editorial board said.
“Several days into President Trump’s battle with Covid-19, even basic facts about his illness — when he was diagnosed, how high his fever climbed, what triggered his hospitalization — remain hard to come by,” the board wrote. “The White House is being evasive and secretive. That’s nothing new, nor is it unreasonable to withhold some sensitive information from the public… But too often in the past few days, the administration has appeared to be actively misleading the American people. Administration insiders are expressing frustration that no one even among Mr. Trump’s own staff seems to know what is going on. Among the broader public, anxious speculation and wild conspiracy theories are multiplying. The unnerving impression is of a White House in chaos.”
In The New Yorker, Dhruv Khullar summed up the importance of the details of Trump’s diagnosis and treatment, and how they are crucial to understanding where things stand. Yet, it’s precisely those details that have been confusing or hidden.
“The vagueness of the communications we’ve received so far may be intentional: in particular, the question of when and how the President was first diagnosed has become freighted with clinical, epidemiological, and ethical implications,” Khullar wrote. “Most reports have placed his first positive test sometime between Wednesday morning and Thursday evening. Clinically, knowing the precise timeline would tell us how far into the illness Trump has progressed, and when he will enter the window, usually beginning about a week after the onset of symptoms, in which he’s at greatest risk for deterioration…
“Epidemiologically, the timing matters for the many people Trump may have exposed to the virus: the President held campaign events throughout the week, including a fund-raiser in New Jersey on Thursday where he met with dozens of donors—an event that featured a buffet. And, ethically, it affects our judgment of his actions. It’s possible that Trump knew that he had been exposed to the virus, or had even received a diagnosis himself, and yet continued to meet with staff and donors, consciously placing their health at risk.”
Americans hate the media. These days, few public institutions (besides Congress) consistently show up with approval ratings as low as the press’s. The reality of a populace that distrusts the media and especially distrusts outlets that report news they don’t like is central to why I created this newsletter — it’s ultimately an effort to build something accountable and transparent that readers can trust while also exposing them to a wide array of views some in the press seem hellbent on hiding.
Given that, I think it’s important to make note of the instances when we should pause to appreciate the importance of America’s free and protected media. This weekend is one of those instances.
Without the incredible reporting of the White House press pool or Bloomberg’s Jennifer Jacobs, we would have no idea what’s going on right now. Trump, understandably, tried to keep his initial diagnosis quiet until follow-up confirmation tests were complete. The public found out about the outbreak thanks to Jacobs, who reported on Hope Hicks testing positive and then set off a scrum to figure out what the president’s status was.
Since then, the press has pored over Trump’s treatment regimen — including this incredible New York Times breakdown of what treatment he’s getting and what that tells us about his condition. The right questions were asked at press conferences about Trump’s health, which exposed cover-ups like the administration’s evasive statements about the fact the president had received supplemental oxygen — a detail the White House clearly tried to keep from the public. Historically speaking, the White House is always hiding details about a president’s health, and this is not a new phenomenon for Trump. But we have the details thanks to the reporters who are deeply embedded and sourced in this White House.
Keeping details from the public seems to be the theme of how this is going down. Dr. Conley’s excuse was an effort to project optimism, which may sound familiar: it’s the same excuse Trump used for downplaying the COVID-19 pandemic to the public in February, which was documented in audio recordings made by Bob Woodward — another journalist who deserves a shout out — during his reporting for the book he wrote on the Trump White House. As I write this newsletter, New Jersey officials are still struggling to find all 206 people who attended Trump’s fundraiser last week in New Jersey, attendees they’re fighting to track down because the RNC has only given contact tracers their emails —and not their phone numbers or addresses.
It’s important in times like these to remember that the president works for us. So do his staff, so do the senators who have been infected, so too do the staff at Walter Reed, who are government employees. Our taxes pay their salaries and our votes put some of them in power — which means we have the right to hold them accountable and demand clarity, honesty and transparency. I’ve seen a surprising (and disappointing) number of people criticize the press for digging so hard on the details of Trump’s health, insisting he has some kind of “patient privacy” we shouldn’t be privy to. I’m happy to accept that there are things about his health he has a right to keep private — but the severity of his COVID-19 infection is not one of them.
It would be an encouraging and important sign if Trump left Walter Reed today, as doctors close to him keep saying he may. It would also be rather extraordinary, given what we know about the virus and the fact that it often hits hardest a week or two into the infection period. But Trump is getting the best medical care in the world, with the latest in experimental and proven treatments, and even with his high-risk demographics the odds of him becoming gravely ill or dying have always been very low. With any luck, he’ll be out of the hospital soon — and I just hope his team is forthcoming about how his specific treatment regimen and care went, especially if it leads to such a quick recovery.
Your questions, answered.
Q: I have no doubt about your much better grasp of U.S. politics, however, I can’t help but feel that Trump getting COVID-19 is 50-50 when it comes to his chances of reelection in November. However, in your article, you devote 4 times the space (in terms of number of words) to how his infection would harm his chances than to how it may do the opposite; is it because you believe that Trump catching COVID-19 is much more likely to cause harm to his reelection chances?
— Kamal, Toronto, Canada
Tangle: It’s a great question, and I appreciate the attention to detail here. The short answer is yes: I think there’s a much better chance this entire episode hurts Trump than helps him.
I’ve said this a few times now, but elections and the voting populace are complicated things. We’ve spent so much time in this election cycle fretting over swing voters, turnout, voter registration, mail-in ballots, vice presidential picks, etc., but ultimately one simple question is more important than all the others: What’s the election about?
In 2016, Trump benefited because down the stretch the election was largely about a wave of anti-establishment sentiment, immigration and investigations into Hillary Clinton’s emails. In every conceivable way, the fact the election was about those things helped Trump. In 2020, the election narratives shaping up have been around COVID-19, civil unrest related to racial justice, and the now the Supreme Court nomination. Spatterings of concern about Biden’s health or mental acuity are out there and health care and the economy are always critical, but those three things seem to be dominating right now.
On civil unrest and racial justice, the conventional wisdom is that Trump has strong inroads to help his campaign. He can run on fear that protesters or destruction the likes of what we’ve seen in small areas in Seattle or Kenosha could come to a suburb near you. Framing Democrats as wanting to defund or abolish the police has been a central part of Trump’s campaign ads in swing states. Clearly, his team believes this is a way to turn some voters to them — or at least juice turnout amongst the voters more likely to cast a ballot for him.
On the Supreme Court, the data and opinion is generally split on whether it will help Trump. Some believe another open seat will juice conservative turnout for him, but many conservatives were holding their nose and voting Trump for the courts already. Some believe confirming Barrett before the election would hurt Trump, as those conservatives could now “vote their conscience” with a strong conservative Supreme Court in place to limit a Biden administration. Some believe Americans want the winners of the election to pick the next nominee and anything else looks bad for the incumbent. I think parsing out the plus and minus here is pretty difficult, and I’m not exactly sold either way on how this helps or hurts Trump.
But on COVID-19, there’s very little debate. Americans score Trump worse on his response to the virus than just about anything else he’s done, and no issue is permeating American life more obviously and more negatively than the coronavirus and the world we’re all living in now. More than 200,000 people have died, meaning millions have lost a family member, friend or colleague to the virus. Many of us are still wearing masks, working from home, unable to send our kids to school all while the virus is still spreading here — and all while many other developed nations have things under control.
That means if the election is about COVID-19, Trump’s odds are worse. Trump contracting coronavirus has thrust it back into the front of America’s collective consciousness unlike anything else possibly could. Trump getting so sick he had to receive supplemental oxygen and go to the hospital has, at least temporarily, seemed to humble him and moderate his view of the virus. The video he released from Walter Reed on Saturday was one of the most relatable, even-tempered and measured addresses I’ve ever seen from him. But it also allows for the fact of COVID-19’s threat to become even more real: the most well-protected person in the country, a man who interacts only with people who have been tested for the virus, has now contracted it.
A lot of people will focus on all the other details: that Trump went to a fundraiser while infected and endangered people, that it will knock him off the campaign trail, that he is not being treated with the medication he hyped as a cure, that we’re witnessing a major spreader event amongst Republicans who skirted social distancing rules, and so on. All of these details are important and could sway certain voters against Trump, but none are as important as the very basic question: “What is America thinking about?”
If they’re thinking about COVID-19, it’s not good for the president.
As I mentioned Friday, this doesn’t mean there is no opportunity for Trump to capitalize politically. He could come out of this championing advancements in treatment, social distancing guidelines or simply projecting strength and vigor after beating the virus. The American public has a short memory, and Trump has a month to change his tune in a way that will be more broadly well-received. He could benefit from a sense of sympathy and humanity around his person or campaign, which would almost certainly help his public standing. But none of this is more important than where America’s attention is more broadly, and ultimately all those outcomes seem just about as likely as this entire episode turning voters off to him for the very fact he or his team were irresponsible enough to catch and spread the virus in the first place.
Together, this all makes me think he’s more likely to be hurt than helped by this. But it also comes with the giant asterisk that this is a president who has been declared dead in the water more times than I can count, and always seems to land on his feet publicly. His political obituary has been written and over and over again before and never seems to come to fruition, so it’s difficult to believe it’s going to come to fruition now.
A story that matters.
While the nation has turned its gaze away, more than 4 million acres of land has now burned in California’s wildfires. Fires are continuing in Oregon, Washington and Colorado as well, impacting millions of people. Less talked about, though, is what happens to the water in these areas once the wildfires stop burning. “Experts are focusing more attention on what happens to municipal water systems after a fire, when released toxins can get pulled into plumbing systems, and other damage can linger in pipes for years,” The New York Times reports.
- 73%. The percentage of Democrats who say Trump handled his coronavirus diagnosis irresponsibly in a snap poll taken by Survey Monkey on October 2-3.
- 58%. The percentage of Independents who say Trump handled his coronavirus diagnosis irresponsibly in a snap poll taken by Survey Monkey on October 2-3.
- 88%. The percentage of Republicans who say Trump handled his coronavirus diagnosis responsibly in a snap poll taken by Survey Monkey on October 2-3.
- 18%. The percentage of in-person Pennsylvania voters who are willing to wait up to half an hour to cast their ballot.
- 20%. The percentage of in-person Pennsylvania voters who are willing to wait a half an hour to an hour to cast their ballot.
- 5%. The percentage of in-person Pennsylvania voters who are willing to wait an hour to two hours to cast their ballot.
- 57%. The percentage of in-person Pennsylvania voters who are willing to wait as long as it takes to cast their ballot.
- 10%. The percentage of Americans who say they have been laid off because of COVID-19.
- 20%. The percentage of Americans who say a family member has been laid off because of COVID-19.
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Hundreds of major companies across the U.S. are offering paid time off for election day so their employees can vote or volunteer at the polls. Companies like Gap, Target and Warby Parker are offering paid time off to vote — sometimes a full day or four hours — while Starbucks and Patagonia are helping facilitate volunteer recruitment for poll workers (many poll workers are also paid). Over 700 major companies are involved in efforts to help their employees vote or work the polls, and an estimated six million employees across the U.S. will benefit.