President Donald Trump’s case of COVID-19 is bound to hobble a campaign that was already far behind, in the view of the conventional wisdom, or if you’re a Republican, the mainstream media message.
That may be true. At the least, it erases big events from his schedule. Even for supporters, it tarnishes his self-proclaimed patina of success and, most important, strength — the No. 1 reason he lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
But that view masks, pun intended, a complex set of dynamics and possible outcomes that make Trump’s illness just part of a re-election battle no one can figure out.
Consider, if he does lose the election to former Vice President Joe Biden, he will now have a ready excuse: the illness. That’s important to Trump, whose honed image of strength goes far beyond his presidency. He has already spent time and energy building a case — with not a scant evidence — that widespread absentee ballot fraud will rob him of millions of votes.
COVID could help him. His 18-second video, released on his Twitter account from the White House Friday evening before he headed to the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, and his 4-minute video Saturday and 1-minute chat on Sunday were all designed to show that he’s doing fine, if looking pale.
They depict him in a slightly more human light than his disgraceful debate image last week — grateful for the support of the nation — though he still can’t bring himself to warn people about the dangers of COVID-19, nor to show interest in anyone else with the illness.
Could he actually elicit sympathy and show strength at the same time in this illness? Trump might have to show some humility for the first time in his life. Or he could power through it like he did four years ago after a tape emerged in which he bragged about sexually assaulting women.
Some Republicans — notably Rep. Themis Klarides, R-Derby, the outgoing House Republican leader, a possible candidate for governor in 2022 — are not happy that Trump disparaged mask-wearing and has generally failed to follow the rules of his own government. That makes his illness less sympathetic.
“I’m disappointed that he didn’t follow the rules,” Klarides said Friday afternoon. “The president should follow the same guidelines being published by the public health officials.”
The irony of his publicly downplaying coronavirus from start, holding numerous undistanced events, making fun of the way former Vice President Joe Biden wears a mask excessively in Trump’s view — only to have the president test positive — is lost on no one and the source of glee to Trump-haters. A few, though no elected Democrats as far as I could tell, even publicly wished him death.
The mystery is where all this goes. Democrats, of course, cling to the idea that COVID-19 will nix Trump’s hopes for Election Day, period. They should have no reason to hope he suffers physically.
Republicans I spoke with, including Klarides, see no way to sort out all that’s happening. Sympathy votes? A ready excuse for losing? Will Trump actually encourage his anti-science followers who scoff at protections to take this thing seriously?
How about his illness as a platform to exit the election with honor? We’re too far along for the Republican National Committee to seat another candidate in time to make it onto ballots, but if the illness were to be severe, Trump would have the out that some people speculate he wants if he can’t win.
“There are so many things in this race that are fluid to both candidates that it’s hard to see what to focus on,” Klarides said.
In Trumbull Friday afternoon, Republican Rep. Dave Rutigliano knocked on doors for his re-election campaign for 2 1/2 hours. Trump’s illness was topic No. 1, right? Wrong. It barely came up, he said.
“My voters are upset, a lot of board of education talk here in Trumbull,” Rutigliano said. “The distance learning has caused a lot of stress ... People are worried about their kids.”
As for Trump, Rutigliano wishes him well, of course, but isn’t focused on him. “He’s got his race to run, I’ve got mine,” he said. “I’m in my bubble.”
So few voters are undecided on Trump vs. Biden that Trump’s illness diminishes in importance. Besides, the rap that Trump came down with the sickness because he wasn’t careful isn’t accurate in the view of many supporters. If he caught it from Hope Hicks, a top aide, that could have happened to anyone.
“When I’m inside my law office and I’m talking to my law partners, I’m not wearing a mask,” said state Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, who, like Klarides and Rutigliano, supports distancing guidelines.
“The guy has COVID,” Fasano said. “Can we just wish him well?
U.S. Rep Jahana Hayes, D-5, has the illness even now, Fasano pointed out. “Did she do something wrong? It’s going to happen, it’s out there. ... It’s part of life, unfortunately.”
All true, and it’s unseemly to shame anyone, Trump included, for any type of illness, accident or medical condition. That he did so ruthlessly exactly four years ago to his opponent, Hillary Clinton, after her bout with pneumonia, that he mocked a disabled news reporter in his 2016 campaign, is part of the irony but beside the point. Civilized people don’t do that stuff.
The point is not revenge, it’s that Trump has painted himself as different, above the fray, a consummate winner.
“I don’t know that it has any consequential impact on votes he’s going to win or not win,” said Chuck Pyne, chairman of the Woodbridge Republican Town Committee and treasurer of the GOP state central committee.
“It certainly proves he’s human and I don’t think it’s a declarative statement about him not being careful,” Pyne said, noting that a journalist reported Friday that Trump had asked him to keep his distance when he leaned in to talk to the president on Air Force One.
The public perception depends on how the illness unfolds and how the president reacts. On Friday night, Trump joined the 30,742 Americans hospitalized with COVID-19, although the threshold for making that decision in his case had to be lower because he’s commander-in-chief (with great insurance). That has to hurt him more than it would if Biden caught COVID, because of the image thing.
“Anything that happens with Donald Trump is cataclysmic to somebody,” Pyne said. “This is one more event in the saga of Donald Trump and we’ll see how it plays out.”