2020 just won't stop.
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: 9 minutes.
Do I have to tell you what this newsletter is going to be about?
President Donald J. Trump and First Lady Melania Trump return to the White House after attending church services at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., Sunday morning, March 17, 2019, on St. Patrick’s Day at the historic church known as “the Church of the Presidents.” (Official White House Photo by Joyce N. Boghosian)
I imagine many Americans — and much of the world — will remember where they were and what they were doing when they found out President Donald Trump and Melania Trump had tested positive for COVID-19.
Everything began unfolding last night when the news broke that Hope Hicks, one of the president’s closest aides, who left the White House and came back to the campaign for this 2020 run, had tested positive for coronavirus. The White House had initially tried to keep the report quiet, but Bloomberg’s Jennifer Jacobs scooped the story. Then Trump confirmed her positive test on Sean Hannity Thursday night, and told the viewing audience he was awaiting his own results.
I immediately remembered seeing Hicks, maskless, sitting in the debate audience in Cleveland, Ohio, on Tuesday. She had been traveling to and from the debates — and then to a rally — with Trump on Air Force One. Her symptoms began on the way back to D.C. and she started isolating immediately afterward.
When I got the news, I was sitting in front of a fireplace in a rural New York home thinking about how nice it’d be to sleep in today, to take a day off from the news, and to blast Tangle subscribers with a brief note about some of the stuff they needed to be dialed in on for the weekend. Today was going to be my day to recharge for the final run, a hilariously naive idea in retrospect that completely discounted the year we are living in. My phone had died, and I had let it go uncharged with glee, before a friend read The New York Times push notification out loud: “Trump tested positive for coronavirus.”
It’s tough to put into words the magnitude of this diagnosis for Trump. Despite being a professional writer I am running out of adjectives in the English language to describe how totally unprecedented, historic, bizarre, terrible, unpredictable, dramatic and full of twists this year has been.
Some of what comes next may not be immediately obvious, so I’ll try to make note of the things that seem important to me.
First, and most importantly, I hope and pray that the president enjoys a symptom-free and easy run-in with this thing. As many have pointed out, he is 74 years old and overweight — the president’s demographic, on paper, is the highest risk group the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has for COVID-19. Nearly 11% of Americans in his age group die from coronavirus, even without weight or other health issues accounted for. The latest reports we have are that the president is experiencing “mild” symptoms, which is worse than being asymptomatic but far better than being gravely ill.
Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is nearly 20 years younger than Trump, was recently hospitalized and spoke in horrifying terms about his experience with the virus. At one point, Johnson’s doctors prepared to announce that he was going to die. Trump, Melania and Hope Hicks should get the best treatment in the world, and with any luck they’ll be on the mend in the coming weeks — but other world leaders’ experiences with the virus show there’s no telling how this goes.
About a month ago, as Kenosha, Wisconsin was drowning in unrest, and in the days after Kyle Rittenhouse had killed two people in the streets, I wrote to you that our final twists and turns of the election were still down the road. I had no idea what an unbelievable understatement that would be.
A few days after that unrest, the White House began spreading the word that a vaccine was on target to hit the public in early 2021. Then The Atlantic story about Trump’s comments on U.S. troops broke. Then the skies turned orange on the West Coast, and for a brief moment, climate change and wildfires were a central issue. Then Bob Woodward’s book dropped, with audiotapes of Trump conceding in February he knew how dangerous the virus was and intentionally played it down to prevent a panic. Then, on a Friday night in late September, the liberal icon and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died and the fight over her replacement began. Then the Breonna Taylor grand jury ruling came down. Then Trump picked Amy Coney Barrett to replace Ginsburg. Then The New York Times published a detailed story on Trump’s tax returns. Then we had the “debate” on Tuesday. And now we’re here.
Believe it or not, this is where things get complicated.
Trump tested positive last night, in the early morning hours of October 2nd. The next debate is October 15th, 13 days away. That debate is unlikely to happen now, given the national protocol for handling COVID-19. From the CDC website, this is Trump’s best-case scenario: “If you continue to have no symptoms, you can be with others after 10 days have passed since you had a positive viral test for COVID-19. Most people do not require testing to decide when they can be around others; however, if your healthcare provider recommends testing, they will let you know when you can resume being around others based on your test results.”
That means to follow CDC protocol and make the October 15th debate, Trump needs to remain symptom free and get a negative test on Monday. Given what we know about the virus, the odds of that seem extraordinarily low — even impossible. Then there’s also this, from the same CDC guidelines: “Anyone who has had close contact with someone with COVID-19 should stay home for 14 days after their last exposure to that person.”
This essentially puts Trump and all of his closest staff on the bench for two weeks — if not longer. For a president who loves to campaign, and whose campaigns are tied so closely to his identity and re-election strategy, this news is ground-shifting. It brings them to October 16th at the earliest without any kind of the campaigning they had planned. An event in Florida has already been canceled; events in Arizona and Wisconsin scheduled for next week are almost certain to be canceled, too. Trump is fighting for victories in all three states.
Then there’s the other important question: What about Joe Biden? And everyone else who could be infected? Kamala Harris announced a negative test on Tuesday morning. The former vice president awaits his results as I send this newsletter, but even a negative test today doesn’t mean he’s out of Dodge. He and Trump were in a room six to ten feet apart from each other yelling back and forth without masks for 90 minutes on Tuesday night, and it could take days for a positive test result to show up.
Reporters watched as Trump’s family and staff refused a Cleveland Clinic doctor’s request to wear masks while seated for the debate, a protocol that was supposed to be mandatory for everyone. Hope Hicks had symptoms on Wednesday, meaning she was likely infected and spreading it even sooner. Hicks had traveled to a rally in Minnesota on Wednesday, had been with Trump’s press secretary Kayleigh McEnany all week, and McEnany sparred with reporters at the White House inside the briefing room on Wednesday morning, all without wearing a mask.
It’s unclear how many supporters or other politicians he and his staff came into contact with throughout the week, but on Thursday alone the president was at a fundraising event in Bedminster, New Jersey, where The New York Times reported that he came into contact with about 100 supporters. Because the president is tested so often for the virus, as much of his team is, they often interact publicly and privately while flouting social distance regulations. Reporters covering Trump have repeatedly noted that he sometimes asks them to remove their masks to ask questions and mocks staffers on his team who wear face coverings when they are all together.
Imagine for a moment the contact tracing that needs to be done from this infection and it’s honestly not hard to visualize a superspreader event.
Then, of course, there are the political implications. Now, look: the President of the United States has just been infected with a deadly and dangerous virus, and I don’t want to make anything more important than his health. But, to be certain, there is no doubt in my mind that Trump and his team are also considering the politics of all this — and it’s my job to think about how it’s going to “play.” So you’ll have to excuse the potentially grating nature of the following commentary.
A Trump advisor told Axios early this morning that it’s "hard to know” how this impacts the election “but likely hurts Trump as it makes COVID the big issue and points to the failure of his deep denial approach…I doubt it moves many voters either way. I think Trump has a very narrow path to 270. I have his best map at a 269 tie. I think that is a low probability map."
The simple low-hanging fruit take here is that it’s bad for the president. He has, without question, downplayed the severity of the virus to the public and at times mocked his political opponents and his own staff for worrying too much about it — either over their mask-wearing or their refusal to hold rallies, as he has. On Tuesday night, he boasted that there had been “no negative impacts” from any of the rallies he had held. He mocked Joe Biden for always wearing a mask, saying in a tone that could only be described as condescending, “I don’t wear masks like him… Every time you see him, he’s got a mask.”
All of this, obviously, looks bad for the president. He has promised over and over again that the virus was going to fade away — and as numbers once again tick up in half the country, he too is now infected. Some of his most fringe supporters have embraced conspiracy theories about the virus while others simply think the risk is far lower than most people believe. Now that the best-protected and cared for person on the entire planet — a self-proclaimed germophobe — has been infected, it will be interesting to see the reaction. I have no idea how the president catching the virus impacts those voters or their views, but I do know that the president’s odds of winning go down if this upcoming election is about COVID-19 (as opposed to civil unrest, immigration, the Supreme Court or the economy) — which it’s now almost certain to be.
In a worst-case scenario, where the president becomes gravely ill, questions will be raised about whether he should remain on the ballot at all. If he can’t debate, can’t participate in campaigns or can’t oversee the country, there will be calls from across the political spectrum for a change — you can nearly guarantee that. The line of succession for the presidency is Vice President Mike Pence and then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The Republican party rules to replace a candidate in the event they are incapacitated, ill, or die leave two options: the 168 members of the Republican National Convention could vote on a Trump replacement for the ticket or they could reconvene the actual convention — with 2,550 delegates — and pick an alternative for the ballot.
There are other real-world implications, too: the market tanked overnight, with major stocks like Apple shedding full percentage points of value. Some speculators are already predicting a major sell-off. Congress and the White House are in the middle of negotiating a massive, $2.2 trillion COVID-19 relief package that needs the president’s approval and signature. How this changes any of those things is completely beyond my ability to see into the future.
There’s another path here, too. Moments of grave national threats like this are often unifying. President George W. Bush’s approval rating famously skyrocketed in the wake of 9/11. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo saw his approval rating skyrocket even as he failed to control the virus in the state of New York. How the image of Trump changes nationally now that he appears to be a victim of this horrific “plague,” as he has put it, is anyone’s guess. The read on the electorate is that there are very few swing voters left, and most on the left or center will simply blame him for being irresponsible up until now. But there’s no doubt that the president could benefit politically from a more sympathetic and somber view of his campaign.
And then there’s the comeback, Teflon Don, heroic image of strength if he overcomes this thing quickly. Imagine for a moment that Trump’s symptoms remain mild and he somehow makes it to the debates on October 15th, or shortly after, and is back on the campaign trail in two or three weeks. It would pour gasoline on the fire of his image and brand — a strongman who is healthier and more resilient than his opponent.
Love it or hate it, Joe Biden has at times appeared frail on the campaign trail. The fact of his life of public service means we’ve watched him age over the last decade, and if a revitalized and healed up President Trump arrives at the debates on October 15th looking fresher and more energized than Biden, I have no idea how that plays out with the general American public that remains undecided. But I imagine it could be good for Trump, politically speaking.
Then there’s the larger, zoomed out look at all of this. 207,000 people in the United States have died of coronavirus. In 25 states, virus cases are on the rise, while some heavily-infected areas in the south have seen their average positive caseloads go down in the last week. All across the country, health officials are preparing for a long and frightening winter as Americans move back indoors — where the virus spreads much more easily — and the flu season becomes a factor.
Given all that, the president being infected with this virus is a worst-case scenario. It represents not just the reach of the virus itself, but is also a constant reminder that we are nowhere near close to being out of the woods on this thing. It’s a sobering, historic, and scary moment. I would dare to say it’s the kind of thing that could put a final mark on the ebbs and flows of this election, but with 32 days to go until Election Day and three more months of 2020 left to play out, I wouldn’t be so naive.
Believe it or not, there was some other important news last night, too.
- A federal judge has temporarily blocked a Trump administration rule that would have stopped H-1B workers and other visa holders from coming to the United States until the end of 2020.
- House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says Democrats and the White House are getting closer in their negotiations on a second COVID-19 relief package, one of the most encouraging signs yet that a deal may be struck before the 2020 election.
- Texas Gov. Greg Abbott proclaimed that each county in the state would only provide one mail-in drop-off location for the November election, an executive order that set off cries of voter suppression and is expected to lead to legal challenges.
- U.S. job growth slowed last month, with 661,000 new jobs added to the labor market and an estimated unemployment rate of 7.9%. The Labor Department said the economy has now recovered 11.4 million of the 22 million jobs lost at the beginning of the pandemic.
- Joe Biden’s election campaign is planning to ramp up its door-knocking strategy, just weeks after criticizing President Trump for doing the same thing, and in the same week that the president tested positive for COVID-19.
- $250 million. The estimated amount of money that will be spent on political ads in Florida between now and election day.
- 15,000. The number of refugees who will be allowed into the United States over the next year, a historic low set by the Trump administration.
- 32,000. The number of employees airlines are expected to let go in the coming months due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
- 36%. The percentage of Republicans who say they feel “a little”, “a moderate amount”, “a lot” or “a great deal” that it is justified for [your party] to use violence in advancing political goals.
- 33%. The percentage of Democrats who say they feel “a little”, “a moderate amount”, “a lot” or “a great deal” that it is justified for [your party] to use violence in advancing political goals.
- 44%. The percentage of Republicans who said there would be at least “a little” justification for violence if the other party’s nominee wins the election.
- 41%. The percentage of Democrats who said there would be at least “a little” justification for violence if the other party’s nominee wins the election.
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