News that President Donald Trump has tested positive for the coronavirus presents a formidable new obstacle for a reelection campaign already struggling to overcome the drag of the COVID-19 pandemic and the attendant crippling of much of the U.S. economy.
While the ultimate impact of the diagnosis will depend on the president's health, even a relatively mild case will refocus the nation and the 2020 campaign on the response to the pandemic, an issue on which Trump has received low marks from voters.
The news of Trump's plight, coming just before 1 a.m. Friday on the East Coast and with a little more than a month to go before election day, sent experts scrambling to determine what would happen if a candidate died or was incapacitated before Nov. 3.
"In terms of what it means for the country, obviously this is an extremely vulnerable moment for the United States, which should give everyone pause," said Rob Stutzman, a onetime adviser to former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Dire scenarios — including the need to replace an incapacitated Trump — are not the most likely outcome. Although Trump's age, sex and obesity put him at higher risk of developing a severe case of COVID-19, a doctor speaking on Fox News noted that the 74-year-old president would stand a good chance of making a complete recovery.
The more immediate impact of the illness will be to keep Trump off the campaign trail, possibly preventing him from participating in his next scheduled debate with Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, set for Oct. 15.
Trump is unlikely to be able to stage the kind of massive rallies that have energized him and his most loyal supporters. He was scheduled to be in Southern California on Tuesday for fundraisers in Orange County and Beverly Hills.
Even with a mild or asymptomatic case, the president will still face a major messaging challenge because of his often dismissive public stance toward the danger posed by the virus, said Dan Schnur, a political independent who teaches political communication at USC and UC Berkeley.
"Even if you assume the best health outcome for the president and first lady, he'll still be facing a massive political problem," said Schnur, a past advisor to many Republican leaders, "because his own exposure undermines the primary argument he has been making about COVID-19 for the last several months."
Indeed, in a pre-recorded speech for the annual Al Smith dinner Thursday night, held just hours before his surprise announcement, Trump said: "I just want to say that the end of the pandemic is in sight."
Schnur said voters would also recall that as recently as Tuesday night's debate with former Vice President Biden, Trump downplayed the threat from the disease, which has killed more than 207,000 people in the U.S.
Asked by moderator Chris Wallace about his campaign rallies, many featuring thousands of his mask-less fans crammed together, Trump said there was "no problem," falsely stating that all his rallies have been outdoors.
"So far, we have had no problem whatsoever," Trump said. "It's outside. That's a big difference according to the experts. We do them outside, we have tremendous crowds. ... We've had no negative effect." He held an indoor rally as recently as Sept. 14, in Nevada, and also one in Tulsa, Okla., in June.
During the debate, Biden argued that Trump was underplaying safety measures, including the value of wearing a mask. He noted that the head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that 100,000 lives could be saved by January if Americans increase their mask usage. "It matters," Biden insisted.
Trump retorted: "And they've also said the opposite." To which Biden responded: "No serious person said the opposite."
Trump belittled Biden for holding socially distanced events with smaller groups of voters, and for usually wearing a mask, per public health guidelines.
"Every time you see him he's got a mask," the president said mockingly. "He could be speaking 200 feet away and he shows up with the biggest mask I've ever seen."
The Biden campaign did not respond to requests for comment on how recently the former vice president was tested for the coronavirus. He is scheduled to travel to Grand Rapids, Mich., on Friday for campaign events.
Stutzman, who has expressed disdain for Trump, said the impact on the president's reelection bid could swing wildly, depending on how he gets through the illness.
"I think it will matter how sick he gets," said Stutzman. "Because if he never develops many symptoms, if he comes through this fine, I could see that emboldening his base and himself."
But if Trump is more seriously ill, Stutzman said, "there is an irony to this, that it will hurt Trump's reelection chances, if not seal his fate."
No candidate in the last half century has faced a potentially life-threatening illness so close to election day. Hillary Clinton fell ill with pneumonia in September 2016, but was able to continue her campaign against Trump.
The most serious pre-election illness for a candidate in the last century confronted President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1944, while he was running for an unprecedented fourth term. Roosevelt, already paralyzed from the waist down by polio, was in failing health months before election day.
A doctor who examined him wrote a confidential memo advising that the president would likely die in office if elected to another term. The memo did not go public. Roosevelt won the election, then died of a stroke three months into his term. He was succeeded by Vice President Harry S. Truman.
Both the Democratic and Republican parties have rules for how to choose a new candidate if their nominee dies or withdraws prior to the election.
The challenge with just 31 days until election day is that ballots have already been printed and early voting has begun, said UC Irvine law professor and voting expert Rick Hasen.
"What's most likely (is) that the election would take place on time with the deceased or incapacitated candidate's name on the ballot," Hasen wrote in a post on his Election Law Blog, "and then there would be a question if legislatures would allow presidential electors of each state to vote for someone other than the deceased candidate."
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Not every state has laws addressing this possibility, leading to more uncertainty.
"If we are unfortunate enough to have a presidential candidate die or become incapacitated this close to the election, what happens next is likely to be uncertain and messy," Hasen said in a follow-up conversation. "It could leave room for political gaming as well under arcane rules of the electoral college."
(Times staff writers Melanie Mason and Brittny Mejia contributed to this story.)
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