Here’s what we know so far: President Donald Trump tested positive for the coronavirus on Thursday. He’s experiencing “mild” symptoms, according to the White House, though these were apparently significant enough to prevent him from participating in a phone call that was the only official event on his Friday schedule. First lady Melania Trump, who is also quarantining herself, announced that she had also tested positive and was symptomatic. A wave of high-level government officials who came in contact with Trump have either tested negative or are awaiting results. It was reported that former Vice President Joe Biden, who shared a stage with Trump two days before the president tested positive, has tested negative for the virus, as has his running mate, Kamala Harris.
Beyond that, Americans are in the dark. It’s unclear where or how Trump contracted the virus. It’s also unclear to whom he may have spread it before he tested positive. He is notoriously averse to mask-wearing, social distancing, and other basic precautions to reduce the virus’s spread. Trump’s cavalier disregard of the pandemic is such that White House officials reached out to reporters in July to express concerns about their own safety. After top aide Hope Hicks tested positive for Covid-19 on Thursday morning, Trump took part in a fundraising event with donors in New Jersey without a mask or other safety measures. The New York Times reported that White House officials had hoped to keep Hicks’s diagnosis from becoming public.
Given this White House’s posture toward transparency and the media, it’s an open question when and how Americans would have learned about Trump’s condition if reporters hadn’t learned about Hicks’s positive test result. That posture is also a cause for concern going forward. Trump and his inner circle have given Americans no reason to take them at their word about matters of national consequence. That mistrust is toxic in the best of circumstances; it can be dangerous in the worst of them.
Obfuscation about the president’s health is already a hallowed American tradition. In 1893, surgeons secretly removed a tumor from the upper jaw of Grover Cleveland while sailing on a yacht off the coast of New York. Woodrow Wilson suffered from a stroke in 1919 that left him mostly incapacitated for the remainder of his second term. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s health declined so rapidly in his third term that one doctor who examined him predicted he wouldn’t survive a fourth term; Roosevelt died one year later of a cerebral hemorrhage. Others, including Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan, downplayed serious health conditions in public.
But Trump’s penchant for medical secrecy goes further than that of any of his immediate predecessors. When he first ran for office in 2016, the Trump campaign released an effusive letter from his personal doctor that said Trump “will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency” and that “his physical strength and stamina are extraordinary.” The doctor, Harold Bornstein, admitted two years later that it was false. “He dictated that whole letter,” he told CNN in 2018. “I didn’t write that letter. I just made it up as I went along.” Trump’s most recent public assessment by White House doctors simply summarized a year’s worth of medical appointments as opposed to a full physical exam.
And then there’s the incident in November 2019, when Trump made a hasty, unplanned trip to Walter Reed Medical Center with the White House doctor. While the White House claimed at the time it was part of his annual physical, later reporting suggested that it may have been much more serious than officials publicly claimed. A book released earlier this year by a New York Times journalist reported that Mike Pence was told to be on “standby” during the episode. “It never ends!” Trump wrote on Twitter, after the book’s reporting became public. “Now they are trying to say that your favorite President, me, went to Walter Reed Medical Center, having suffered a series of mini-strokes. Never happened to THIS candidate—FAKE NEWS.” (The book did not mention ministrokes.)
Many people who contract the coronavirus either experience few to no symptoms or make a full recovery from them. Others face more severe symptoms and a more grueling path to recovery. Trump’s diagnosis is concerning because he falls into so many risk groups for the virus: He is 74 years old, visibly overweight, and does not regularly exercise or maintain a healthy diet. Covid-19 is also known for its sudden, sharp downturns in patients. Across the Atlantic, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson went from working through the symptoms at 10 Downing Street to entering the intensive care unit of a London hospital within a 24-hour span.
Trump’s leadership style also complicates matters. This is a president who struggles to run the government under the best of circumstances. Some of his top staffers have reportedly worked to countermand or slow-walk his orders when they disagree with them, as documented in the Mueller Report and countless news articles over the last four years. If Trump’s condition worsens, will government officials be able to tell if directives from the White House actually came from Trump? Historians now believe that Woodrow Wilson’s wife, first lady Edith Wilson, became an acting president of sorts after a stroke left the president incapacitated in 1919; some suggest this arrangement lasted until he left office in 1921. At the height of the Watergate scandal, Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger instructed military officials not to carry out any nuclear launch orders from the despondent Richard Nixon without the approval of Henry Kissinger or himself.
Trump’s diagnosis also raises awkward questions about the Constitution’s mechanisms if he is unable to perform his duties. While modern presidents have used the Twenty-Fifth Amendment to temporarily turn over power to their vice presidents for brief medical procedures, the process to involuntarily remove a president from power remains untested. And then there’s the ongoing presidential election, where ballots with the candidates’ names on them have already been printed and distributed. As election law expert Rick Hasen noted earlier today, the different state-by-state processes to replace a candidate in the election could lead to “electoral chaos.” That’s not comforting in an election where the peaceful transfer of power is no longer automatically guaranteed.
Statistically speaking, the most likely outcome of Trump’s diagnosis is a short illness and a full recovery. But his presidency, and this year, are a testament to how unlikely events can have seismic consequences. That makes it especially tragic that when the White House speaks, Americans can never assume that it’s telling the truth.