In Depth

How Donald Trump’s battle with coronavirus may impact the US election

President makes surprise drive-by visit to supporters outside hospital - but will be off the campaign trail

Given his tendency to eschew masks and social distancing measures, Donald Trump’s infection with the Covid-19 coronavirus was viewed by many as a case of when rather than if.

The president is being treated at Walter Reed military hospital near Washington D.C. after being transferred from the White House on Saturday, but made a surprise appearance last night when he went on a brief drive to thank supporters.  

In a video released on Twitter shortly before his unexpected foray, Trump thanked the “great patriots” gathering outside the medical facility, adding that he had “learned a lot about Covid” after testing positive last week.

His infection “coincides with a fall in his polling” following the first presidential debate last Tuesday and “leaves a question mark over whether he can recover for the second showdown with Joe Biden in ten days’ time”, The Times says. So with less than a month until polling day, how could his illness impact the result?

Trump’s Covid timeline

The president’s doctor, Sean Conley, has backtracked on his statement on Saturday that Trump had been diagnosed with coronavirus 72 hours earlier, with the medic insisting yesterday that he had “incorrectly used the term 72 hours instead of day three”.

On Friday, debate moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News claimed that Trump arrived late to the presidential debate last week; was not tested for coronavirus at the event; and that the president and his family did not wear masks during the proceedings.

Trump tested positive for coronavirus on Thursday evening, but did not publicly announce the result “while awaiting the findings from a more thorough coronavirus screening”, The Wall Street Journal reports.

Biden’s team was not contacted, despite the Democratic candidate having been in close proximity to the president during the debate. And when Trump made an appearance on Fox News that evening, he did not disclose his test results, instead merely confirming that close aide Hope Hicks had Covid.

Prior to his test on Thursday, Trump had travelled to a New Jersey golf club to attend three events for a fundraiser, including an indoor roundtable where he met with 18 donors. Three attendees told CNN “that most people at the events were not wearing masks” and “all three say they have not been contacted by any contact tracers”.

The following night, Trump was taken to Walter Reed hospital. In a statement, Dr Conley said the president was “fatigued but in good spirits”.

Conley also revealed that Trump had “received a dose of an experimental antibody cocktail being developed by the drug maker Regeneron, in addition to several other drugs, including zinc, vitamin D and the generic version of the heartburn treatment Pepcid”, The New York Times reports.

So what does this mean for the election?

As he began his second full day in hospital on Sunday, the president’s spirits are unlikely to have been lifted by a new national poll putting him 14 points behind Biden, with less than a month until election day.

The NBC/Wall Street Journal survey, which shows a 53% to 39% lead for the challenger, has “injected urgency for Trump’s advisers already scrambling to find a strategy for the final weeks of the campaign until 3 November”, says The Guardian.

Vice-president Mike Pence, who has tested negative for Covid, and members of the president’s family “will assume leading roles at virtual, then in-person rallies until or unless Trump himself recovers in time to resume campaigning”, the paper adds. 

“It’s important that our campaign vigorously proceeds,” senior campaign adviser Steve Cortes told Fox News on Sunday.

“The vice-president, campaign people, millions of regular Americans, need to step up and to some degree fill the void that is left because our champion, our main instrument, is not able at this moment to vigorously campaign.” 

But exactly how his brush with the virus will impact on Trump remains to be seen

The Economist points out that “while he is recuperating, Americans will be reminded that Mr Trump has spent all year playing down the severity of the virus”.

The Trump campaign has been trying to shift conversation away from the pandemic, “but his own illness makes that task impossible for the next ten days”, the magazine adds. 

All the same, some experts believe that his diagnosis will not shift his messaging, arguing that “the president’s illness is unlikely to sway those who think Covid-19 is no big deal”, The Atlantic reports.

In early June, a Pew Research Center survey found that 63% of Republicans believed the severity of the pandemic had been overstated.

Joseph Uscinski, a political-science professor at the University of Miami, told the magazine that is unlikely to change now, with perceptions of the pandemic “largely set”.

What if he is too ill to govern?

In the most extreme scenario, Trump could become too ill to carry out his duties. If that were to happen, the 25th Amendment of the US constitution would allow Trump to hand over power to the vice-president, and then reclaim his position when he was well again. 

If the president were to become too unwell to hand over power himself, his cabinet and vice-president could declare him unable to continue, meaning Pence would assume the role.

The last time this happened was in 2002 and 2007, when then president George W. Bush put his vice-president, Dick Cheney, in charge when he was sedated during colonoscopies. Prior to that, in 1985, Ronald Reagan placed his vice-president, George H. W. Bush, in charge while he was in hospital for cancer surgery.

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