BETWEEN OCTOBER 2ND and election day in 2016, Donald Trump held more than 60 rallies and events in 19 states. That sort of breakneck pace was always going to be impossible during an epidemic. But now it is an open question whether he will be able to hold a single rally. On October 2nd of this year, Mr Trump was admitted to Walter Reed Hospital after testing positive for covid-19. How sick he is, when he was infected and when he might be released from hospital remain unclear.
This is partly because the White House’s messaging has been contradictory. At a press conference on Saturday October 3rd, Mr Trump’s doctor, Sean Conley, said that the president was “72 hours into the diagnosis”, which would mean he was diagnosed on Wednesday September 30th. If true, Mr Trump would have held a rally in Duluth, Minnesota, and two fundraisers, one in Minnesota and the other at one of his clubs in New Jersey, after his diagnosis.
A couple of hours later, Dr Conley issued a statement saying he “incorrectly used the term” 72 hours, and that Mr Trump was diagnosed on the evening of October 1st. One attendee at Mr Trump’s New Jersey fundraiser that night, which was held indoors, said the president “seemed lethargic” and had come into contact with around 100 people. Mr Trump announced his diagnosis later that night (technically, early on the morning of Friday October 2nd, at 00:45).
As for the question of Mr Trump’s condition, Dr Conley has also been evasive. At the Saturday press conference he dodged questions as to whether Mr Trump had ever been on oxygen, confirming only that he was not on oxygen that day. On Sunday Dr Conley confirmed that Mr Trump had in fact received supplemental oxygen on Friday, when he also registered a “high fever”. Dr Conley explained that he was “trying to reflect the upbeat attitude” of the White House and noted: “It came off like we were trying to hide something, which wasn’t necessarily true.”
Also on Saturday Dr Conley said the president was “doing very well”. But just minutes later Mark Meadows, Mr Trump’s chief of staff, told reporters that “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.” (Mr Trump is reportedly furious with Mr Meadows for these comments.)
Mr Trump is being treated with remdesivir, an antiviral drug shown to improve outcomes for some hospitalised covid-19 patients; dexamethasone, a steroid generally prescribed for severe cases of covid-19; and an experimental antibody cocktail not yet authorised by the Food and Drug Administration. Mr Trump tweeted out a video on Saturday in which he sounded slightly hoarse but said he was “starting to feel good,” and that “we have things happening that look like they’re miracles coming down from God.” On Sunday he appeared in person, apparently keen to show his supporters he is on the mend. The presidential motorcade drove him to greet well-wishers outside the hospital. Wearing a mask, he waved through the window of his limousine. (A doctor at Walter Reed tweeted his dismay that Secret Service agents in the “hermetically sealed” limousine had been “commanded by Trump to put their lives at risk for [political] theater” and would have to quarantine for 14 days.)
Mr Trump is one of several White House officials and others to test positive recently for covid-19. Many attended a reception for Amy Coney Barrett, Mr Trump’s new Supreme Court nominee, held at the White House on September 26th both indoors and out, at which many of the guests were hugging, shaking hands, and sitting and standing close together without wearing masks. Others who have fallen ill include Bill Stepien, Mr Trump’s campaign manager; Kellyanne Conway, a former adviser; Chris Christie, an ally of Mr Trump’s and a former governor of New Jersey; and Mike Lee and Thom Tillis, two Republican senators.
Another Republican senator, Ron Johnson, tested positive but did not attend the event. Another three Republican senators are quarantining over fears of possible exposure. These absences raise the spectre of a delayed vote for Ms Barrett, though the Judiciary Committee plans to keep to its schedule and hold hearings beginning on October 12th.
As for Mr Trump, one of his doctors at Walter Reed has said he may be released as early as October 5th, to continue his treatment at the White House. But that risks infecting others there; most people remain contagious for ten days after the onset of symptoms. Mr Trump also risks having to return to hospital should his condition worsen, which would prolong and intensify this story.
Falling victim to a virus he had long downplayed (indeed, the day before entering hospital Mr Trump said “the end of the pandemic is in sight”) is precisely what Mr Trump’s campaign does not need. His illness may not upend the race, as so much commentary has it, so much as calcify it.
An NBC/WSJ poll taken after the first presidential debate (but before Mr Trump’s diagnosis) showed Joe Biden leading Mr Trump by 14 percentage points, up from eight before the debate. That includes a 27-point lead among older people, whom Mr Trump won by eight percentage points in 2016; a 25-point lead among suburban women; and a one-point advantage among men over 50. An ABC news poll taken after the diagnosis showed that 72% of voters, including 43% of Republicans, think that Mr Trump failed to take the risk of contracting covid-19 seriously and failed to take appropriate personal precautions.
Just as his debate performance offered nothing to reassure wavering voters anxious about his character, contracting covid after holding crowded, maskless events for months and mocking those who wore protective gear reinforces the impression that Mr Trump has been cavalier at best about a disease that has killed more than 200,000 Americans and infected at least 7.5m. It also keeps voters’ focus on covid-19, rather than on Mr Biden’s age, lefty protesters or anything else that might change the dynamics of the campaign.
Mr Biden, having tested negative, was in Michigan on October 2nd and will be in Florida on the 5th, speaking to voters in battleground states. More than 3m Americans have already voted. In less than a month, the election will be over. Mr Trump is running out of time to change America’s mind.
Editor’s note (October 5th): this article has been updated since it was first published