The president and the first lady of the United States have tested positive for COVID-19. This is earth-shaking news on multiple fronts. The U.S. now faces a national security crisis.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), eight out of 10 COVID-related fatalities in the U.S. were in patients 65 years or older. President Trump is 74 years old, clinically obese, and is a self-described insomniac, sleeping only four hours per night. These factors put the president in the highest risk zone for COVID-19 complications.
When Boris Johnson, the prime minister of Britain, tested positive for COVID-19, he was hospitalized within two weeks, and then spent time in an intensive care unit. While Johnson ultimately came through fine, there was a window of time where recovery was far from certain.
If the president of the United States is hospitalized within mere weeks of the 2020 election — a real and serious possibility now — there is no roadmap for what happens next.
The 2020 election cannot be postponed. The timing is constitutionally mandated, and the United States has not missed an election in its 200-plus year history — not even during the American Civil War.
The Supreme Court nomination timeline, and Congress itself, could also be plunged into logistical chaos.
The U.S. Senate is filled with senators at extreme risk for COVID-19 complications. Mitch McConnell, the senate majority leader, is 78 years old. Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe is 85 years old. Republican Sen. Richard Shelby is 86. Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley is 87.
In addition to their advanced age, all of these senators (and many others) may have been in close contact with the president and his staff in recent days, and with Amy Coney Barrett, the GOP Supreme Court nominee who has also been in contact with Trump and his staff.
Barrett completed a meet-and-greet Senate tour just days ago. It isn’t clear yet, but McConnell and others might need to self-quarantine. Barrett herself might need to self-quarantine.
What does this mean for Senate timelines? We don’t know. What would self-quarantine requirements or, worse yet, an announcement of further infections, mean for the Senate’s ability to function? We don’t know.
In related news, Ronna McDaniel, the Chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, has also tested positive for COVID-19, according to reporter Maggie Haberman of The New York Times. “She was last with POTUS last Friday,” Haberman tweeted, “and has been in Michigan since then.”
Did McDaniel transmit COVID-19 to the president? Or was it vice versa, or was the source someone else entirely — like Hope Hicks, one of the president’s most trusted aides, who has also tested positive, and who traveled extensively with the president this week? Again, we just don’t know.
Vice President Mike Pence is almost certainly seeing his routine adjusted dramatically now, as a precautionary security measure, should he need to become acting president. Some are even arguing that Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the majority leader in the House of Representatives, should now self-isolate as a precaution, given that she is third in line if a situation arises where both the president and vice president are incapacitated.
In terms of overall seriousness, we agree with the following analysis from journalist Carl Bernstein, of Woodward and Bernstein fame:
I think we need to look at one thing immediately. We are now in the midst of a national security crisis that is different than any one in our history in this country. We have to be concerned about adversaries, particularly Russia, taking advantage of this situation for its own purposes.
We have to think about possible cyber-manipulation of the markets… obviously this is going to have a huge effect on the markets…
We don’t know the future of this election campaign. It depends on the president’s health. We don’t know what his health is going to be. It’s going to totally up-end the end of the election campaign.
So every aspect of our national life, in terms of stability, is now affected in ways we could never have envisioned a day ago…
When President Trump tweeted the news, in the wee hours of the morning, that he and the first lady tested positive for COVID-19, global markets immediately reacted with shock. The Dow Jones Industrial Average and S&P 500 fell 1.4%. Crude oil futures fell 3.6%. The Cboe Volatility Index (VIX) rose more than 5%. And last but not least, gold, the U.S. dollar, and U.S. treasury bonds all strengthened modestly.
When those four instruments — the VIX, gold, the U.S. dollar, and U.S. Treasury bonds — all rise at the same time, in relation to the same event, you can be assured the event is very, very serious.
This intensified concentration of political and geopolitical risk, at an incredibly sensitive time, is completely unprecedented for the United States.
In addition to continuity of government issues, with barely a month to go before the most consequential and chaos-prone presidential election in decades, U.S. security officials and the U.S. military need to worry about the heightened possibility of covert action from a hostile state (think Russia, China, or Iran) aimed at leveraging an extreme vulnerability window.
At the end of the day, all of this could turn out fine (and we certainly hope it does). But the stakes are higher than ever now, and crisis conditions have arrived.