Donald Trump, in his capacity as president, has spent now 10 months ignoring expert public health advice, opposing basic safety measures such as wearing protective face coverings and opposing curtailing risky commercial operations such as dine-in restaurants and bars.
On April 3, he criticized the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for recommending wearing masks. He opposed increased COVID-19 testing, which could have substantially limited shutdowns and layoffs, because it “makes us look bad” and said he wanted to “slow the testing down, please,” bizarrely reasoning “when you test, you create cases.” On April 23, he speculated about injecting disinfectant such as bleach into the body as a treatment for COVID-19, prompting the maker of Lysol to issue a statement saying “under no circumstance should our disinfectant products be administered into the human body (through injection, ingestion or any other route).”
Trump minimized federal assistance to states and local governments facing shortages of medical supplies such as personal protective equipment (PPE) and mechanical ventilators, even using federal agents to seize shipments and divert them away from medical facilities. He made false statements claiming in February the virus would go away like a “miracle” by April while privately admitting that was untrue. He claimed on September 21 that COVID-19 “affects virtually nobody” as the US death toll surpassed 200,000.
Early this morning, Trump announced on Twitter that he and first lady Melania had tested positive for COVID-19. There is no case in which any threat of medical incapacity of a sitting president is a good thing: At best it leads to chaos and at worst is an invitation to enemies for a military or terrorist attack. Shortly before Trump’s tweet, public sources revealed the launch of two of the special “doomsday” E6 Mercury “Looking Glass” military aircraft used to maintain control of the US nuclear arsenal in the event of an attack that disables the National Command Authority (that is, the president, vice president, and defense secretary) usually handling that duty; this would be standard practice to deter enemies seeking to take advantage of the situation. (A Pentagon spokesman confirmed the flights but said they were routine.)
I’ve been covering the coronavirus story since January, reading everything from government statements to medical journals. Much of this began as conflicting information either because uninformed people had no idea what they were talking about or was simply the process of science figuring things out in the face of an onrushing tidal wave of unfiltered data. I was appalled, and said so, when US Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross idiotically predicted on Fox Business, as early as January 30, that the novel virus affecting China would be economically good for the United States because it would lead to the return of manufacturing jobs from overseas. This was so early in the pandemic that the World Health Organization would not even name the virus, SARS-CoV-2, and the disease caused by it, COVID-19, until February 11.
I have observed two themes on social media that I want to address specifically.
Firstly, there has been speculation that Trump is faking his diagnosis for any number of reasons, such as encouraging sympathy, getting out of future debates, or even providing an excuse for losing reelection. Several personal friends of mine have openly said that Trump’s behavior is reminiscent of “gaslighting” behavior they encountered in abusive relationships, and that is undeniably true. I readily concede there is no bottom to Trump’s willingness to lie, and The Washington Post maintains a database of his substantive lies now well over 20,000, but his lying is so well known that less than 30% of the public believes anything he says. However, the COVID-19 diagnosis was confirmed by official White House physician Sean Conley, who is an active duty US Navy doctor, and it is beyond Trump’s ability to ensnare military and civilian public servants from the Department of Defense and Secret Service into such an elaborate ruse, no matter how much he might want to do so, and they would never knowingly collude in putting the national security at risk. Nor is it even remotely in Trump’s interest to get stuck in quarantine for two weeks only a month before the election, hurting his fundraising efforts and forcing cancellation of numerous rallies and campaign events. Admitting any kind of weakness, even medical illness, goes against every authoritarian strongman impulse Trump has demonstrated his entire life.
Secondly, there has been suggestion that Trump is being punished by a kind of mystic “karma” analogous to poetic justice for having so thoroughly mismanaged government response to the pandemic crisis, sidelining medical professionals and public health experts, but this requires no recourse to mysticism to explain: the disastrous condition of the country, according to CDC data today with 7.3 million diagnosed cases and 207,000 dead, increasing at a rate of 47,000 new cases and 900 new deaths per day, is a direct result through straightforward cause and effect, not mystic action, of 10 months of willful denialism and incompetence.
The incapacity of a president, whatever you may think of him, is a real and concrete threat to the nation. CNN is cataloguing the medical status of Trump’s family, cabinet members, and political advisors. People who attended events, such as the president of Notre Dame University who was in the maskless-and-not-physically-distanced audience for Trump’s announcement of the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, have tested positive; Barrett herself tested positive over the summer but is now recovered.
Very little of Trump’s personal health information has been released publicly, but he is known to be an obese 74-year-old male and that alone puts him at significantly elevated risk of a bad outcome. It’s dangerous to generalize from population aggregates to specific cases, but persons age 65 or older are 4 – 5 times more likely than those 18 – 49 to end up hospitalized from COVID-19, and of those hospitalized age 65 or older, 21.3% will need a mechanical ventilator and 28.1% will die. Overall, the average infected person 65-74 is about 90 times more likely to die than the average infected person 18-29, according to CDC data. As of this afternoon Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, declined to provide specific information about the president’s medical condition or any treatments and drugs being employed.
The Associated Press reported that Trump has been flown to the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center as what the White House said is a “precaution,” and is feeling “fatigued” but will continue his duties as president from a hospital suite specially prepared for that purpose. The AP also reported he received an “experimental antibody cocktail” which The New York Times reported contains Regeneron, an experimental bio-engineered drug made by Eli Lilly, which is in a class of “monoclonal anitbodies” that can be designed against a wide range of specific targets, including viruses, cancers and autoimmune diseases.