The illness of a president and first lady is an occasion for Americans to come together. Whatever one’s opinions of President Donald Trump, he and his family deserve support and compassion at a time like this. We wish them a speedy recovery.
Even so, there is a significant learning opportunity in the first couple’s COVID-19 status. Only last Tuesday, in the first — and what appears likely to have been the last — presidential debate, Trump doubled down on his contempt for caution around the coronavirus. He mocked his opponent, Joe Biden, for wearing a mask. He pulled a mask from his own pocket and said he wore one “when needed.” He spoke with pride of the huge crowds that gathered to hear him speak, with “no negative effect.”
This is hubris. It is up there with the employee of the White Star Line who said not even God could sink the Titanic.
As is often the case with people who behave recklessly during the pandemic, the president has endangered many more people than himself. Start with his immediate family and associates, including First Lady Melania; his close aide Hope Hicks, whose positive test was announced the day before Trump’s; former adviser Kellyanne Conway and campaign manager Bill Stepien, who have both tested positive; the bodyguards and other retainers whose duties necessitated close, daily contact; and Joe Biden, with whom he shared a stage for an hour and a half on Tuesday, and who has tested negative so far. Then move the circle out a bit to include various officials, officeholders and funders, like those he met during his visit to Minnesota on Wednesday.
Move it out a little more, to encompass the thousands in Minnesota and elsewhere who pressed close to each other to hear and see him.
Now widen the circle to include all those who never came into contact with the president but were emboldened by his example. Widen it further still to comprise all the institutions and processes that his illness affects: the military, the justice system, the economy, the election cycle, foreign relations. The stakes are enormous.
And speaking of high stakes: Trump had made no secret of his distrust of the electoral system and the growing likelihood that he would attempt to challenge its results. Suddenly, the possibility that he and his allies might try to postpone the election seems very real, or at least plausible.
Tensions are running high. Americans have asked whether they can trust the information they’re getting about the president’s condition. It is crucial that the White House work with the other branches of the government and the news media to ensure the greatest possible degree of transparency about the president’s health — more transparency than we have seen so far.
As an overweight man in his 70s, Trump is solidly a part of the demographic most at risk from COVID-19. There should be no room for the fragmentary reports sometimes issued about this president’s health, and he should not expect the kind of secrecy enjoyed by private citizens where medical matters are concerned.
Speaking on Saturday from Walter Reed, where Trump was hospitalized Friday, the president’s physician, Dr. Sean Conley, appeared alternately self-assured and evasive. He offered a glowing account of the president’s status, complete with oxygen saturation, blood pressure and heart rate.
Asked whether the president had been given oxygen, Conley said the president was not on oxygen — Saturday. When a reporter asked why Melania Trump had not been hospitalized, Conley replied that the first lady was doing well, and “thanks for asking.” Conley raised eyebrows by describing the president as 72 hours into his diagnosis — a statement he later attempted to walk back — which would have suggested that Trump was known to be ill when he visited Minnesota.
The doctor said Trump had plenty of work to do in his hospital suite. He didn’t say whether that work involved campaigning, but we trust that any further political events will be of the virtual sort. The prudent, best course is for all candidates for public office to stand down from the campaign trail. The risk of gathering in public is no longer justifiable — if it ever was during a pandemic.
COVID-19 is not the only sickness abroad in the United States. There is also an infectious acrimony whose symptoms include distorted perceptions and reflexive distrust. Perhaps Trump’s illness can help cure some of the pervasive hostility that has kept our country from addressing the coronavirus in a unified and coherent way.
The chief denier of the need to take the virus seriously can deny it no more. We hope the news of the first couple’s illness leads our country, at long last, to consensus in our approach to COVID-19.
One last thing: Get well fast, Mr. President.