The last week has been a few month’s worth of news in just a few days.
We had the NYT story on Trump’s taxes (which seems like a lifetime ago, if you even remember that), in which we discovered that the President payed $750 dollars in taxes one year on all of his wealth. That struck a number of people as….unfair, to say the least. Then there was the quote/unquote debate. That was the worst hour and a half of politics I have ever witnessed. And anything that gives the Proud Boys and new motto is a bad thing. That’s just facts. Then there was Melania Trump’s tirade about children at the border and Christmas, which in comparison to other things doesn’t seem to rank real high but was a news story for about two minutes. And then the news story to top all stories hit us on Thursday – The President has COVID. And the world was thrown into turmoil.
The President’s COVID diagnosis has dominated the news for days, now. This seems to have begin on Sat, Sept. 26th. Or at least, that is what people are guessing. On that day Trump hosted an event in the White House Rose Garden to celebrate the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. No fewer than nine people (that’s public figures, we don’t know about any staff) that attended that event have tested positive since then.
Tuesday Trump and a number of his family and his staff attended the debate with Joe Biden. Trump’s guests refused to wear masks once they were there. Trump wasn’t tested for the virus when he arrived because he got there late. He operated on “the honor system.” On Wednesday Trump flew to Minnesota for a fundraiser and rally. Hope Hicks, one of his closest aides, started feeling sick. Thursday Hicks received a positive COVID test. Trump flew to New Jersey for an indoor fundraising event. That night, Bloomberg News reported Hicks had a positive test result. Trump told Fox News he and the First Lady had been tested and were waiting for the results. Doctors said Trump had a fever Thursday into Friday.
Shortly after 1am on Friday the President tweeted that he and his wife had COVID-19. Friday morning Mark Meadows told the press he had “mild symptoms.” That afternoon the White House announced that Trump was receiving Regeneron, an experimental antibody cocktail that has shown promising results but is not approved for treatment. Early that evening the president was transported to Walter Reed Hospital in Bethesda. He tweeted a video of himself thanking people for their support. Before the day was out, he had started a regimen of remdesivir. According to doctors his fever receded by the end of the day, but he received supplemental oxygen early Friday.
Saturday Trump’s personal doctors briefed this press. This was a must anticipated event, but ultimately left many people with more questions than answers. Dr. Conley said he was “extremely happy” with the president’s progress and that he had been fever free for 24 hours. His description of the president’s conditions was very optimistic and positive. He noted that the President was 72 hours into his diagnosis, indicating the president may have appeared at campaign events in person after he was exhibiting symptoms of the virus. Doctors have not been willing to say when the President’s last negative test was, creating some confusion over the timeline of events. Dr. Conley released a memo later saying he misspoke, and that Trump was first diagnosed on Oct. 1st. These dates and hours are important because if Trump knew for 72 hours as opposed to the times indicated by his media announcements he had chosen to go to fundraisers and events knowing he was infected.
While Dr. Conley’s description of Trump’s condition was notably positive an optimistic, a Mark Meadows told the press pool that “the president’s vitals over the last 24 hours were very concerning and the next 48 hours will be critical in terms of his care. We’re still not on a clear path to a full recovery.”
The White House said on Friday that Trump would be at Walter Reed for a few days. Saturday, we continued to get conflicting reports of the President’s health. For example, Friday morning Meadows said that he and the doctors were “very concerned.” Saturday evening he said it was “irrational” to be concerned about whether the President would be able to return to his duties. Sunday Conley and Trump’s team of doctors reported that Trump had experienced two drops in his oxygen levels. The President had also started a regimen of the steroid dexamethasone to aid in his breathing. The doctors hoped that Trump could leave the hospital as soon as Monday.
Sunday evening Trump stepped out of the hospital and drove by his supporters outside of Walter Reed in a presidential motorcade. This was a highly controversial decision as it put Secret Service members in danger somewhat needlessly. Some commentators, including health professionals, have wondered why Trump’s doctors allowed the display.
Trump is currently taking eight different medications that we know of, from the antibody cocktail, to simple things like melatonin and aspirin. One can’t really draw any conclusions based on the medications we know he is taking. But we can say he is probably the only, and first, person to ever be on this combination of drugs. It seems logical that because he is the President his doctors would want to hit this virus with everything, they’ve got. But that must be considered from all angles. These are, in some cases, experimental drugs – we don’t know the side effects. We also don’t know how all these drugs will work together. Inundating a 74-year-old body with these powerful medications all at once is a bit of a gamble in any circumstance. The doctors know this – they recognize there are risks to these medications and to this combination. So they must feel the possible benefit outweighs the risk. As non-medical professionals and non-pharmacological research scientists that leaves the public not really knowing what the situation is. Is this medical regimen because it is a low-risk, high benefit venture? Or is this because the situation is serious, and the risk is necessary to address a critical illness? When the doctors are not forthcoming, we are left to wonder.
Monday afternoon he announced he would be leaving the hospital that evening to return to the White House. In his tweet he encouraged people not to be afraid of COVID and not to let it dominate our lives. He said he felt better than he did 20 years ago. This seems to mitigate the fears people had about the drug combos. And make any worries about the 25th Amendment (which I’ll get to in just a second) dissipate.
There are a few things that come of this – one, there is the fear that this will be an excuse to downplay the virus even more than he already had. As if the virus is not something to take seriously because he survived it. Two, there is the idea that this will become his next appeal to masculinity (as we have discussed on previous podcasts). He is so strong and virile that he beat the “China virus” and a vote for Trump is a vote for American strength and security.
It is entirely too early to tell how these things will play out in public discourse. It may well depend on how he fares once he is out of the hospital and how he can control the media for the next week or two We will just have to see if he is able to turn what could have been his political demise into a victory.
Some news outlets reported that his release from the hospital was against the advice of doctors and aides, who feared a second hospitalization. This would be bad for his health, obviously, but would be politically devastating. But, Trump was bored and agitated and eager to get out of a situation that he felt made him look “weak,” which he will avoid at all costs, so he wanted to leave the hospital as soon as he was physically able.
So far, a number of Trump’s inner circle have tested positive, but Mike Pence remains healthy. Pence has a debate scheduled with Kamala Harris on Wednesday of this week that at this point is still on, but the campaign advisors have been negotiating various changes to the format to keep everyone as safe as possible. But the debate is not the only reason people have an interest in Pence’s health right now.
America, and specifically Trump and his advisors, are suddenly faced with the question of “what if the President is too sick to fulfill his duties?” This is a two-pronged question, as well.
- What if the president thinks he can’t fulfill his duties?
- And what if the president thinks he’s okay, but the president’s advisors think he can’t fulfill his duties?
This is why we have a 25th Amendment.
Section 1 of the amendment clarifies that if a president is removed from office through death or resignation, the vice president becomes president. Section 2 creates a process for filling a vice presidential vacancy — through presidential nomination and confirmation by both houses of Congress. Section 3 allows for a sitting president to voluntarily hand over their powers. The President writes a letter to the Speaker of the House and the leader of the Senate declaring they are handing over their powers, and the Vice President assumes all presidential duties. Later, if the president wants to reclaim their powers, they can do so by just writing another letter. Section 4 is where things get dicey. This involves he vice president and a majority of “the principal officers of the executive departments.” In the past that has been interpreted to mean the main Cabinet departments, which amount to 15. So if Pence and eight Cabinet members wrote a declaration to the leaders of the House and the Senate then Pence would become acting president.
Section 3 has been used a number of times for things like colonoscopies and other medical procedures where the sitting president has been under anesthesia and we needed a lucid leader for a few hours. Section 4 has never been used.
Any discussion about the 25th Amendment is purely speculative and academic right now, as according to all the information we have right now, Trump is just as capable of doing his job as he ever was.
His doctors describe a mild illness, and a positive attitude. But experts on policy and presidents have been all over the news, nonetheless. The truth is, our president is now a statistic in a pandemic that has killed over 200,000 people in the U.S., and debilitated countless more. People are scared, and they want to know there is a system in place to maintain order should things go awry.
The response to the President’s hardship has been interesting, and illustrative of our current political climate. There were immediately those who offered their prayers and support. It is important to note this was not a partisan issue. People from all sides said they wished the President the best and hoped he came through this whole and healthy.
People are praying for Donald, Melania, and the entire Trump family. His supporters gathered in groups to show their unwavering devotion. Those who oppose him offered their kind words of support because they don’t wish ill on anyone and the best thing for the country is for him to get better and get back to work.
But not everyone was so supportive.
There WERE those who said this was karma and he deserved what he got. And then there were those who went further and said they were glad he finally got what he deserved. And then there were those who said they hoped the disease took its ultimate toll and that this was an awful experience, if not fatal for him. It was bad enough that Twitter had to make an announcement that it does not tolerate tweets that wished harm or death on other people. This led members of the Squad to wonder where that policy has been for the last few years.
This presents an interesting rhetorical problem – what do you do when someone has courted a particular disaster, and then that disaster has befallen them? What is the ethical response? Does one display sympathy for their trouble? Or is sympathy not the appropriate response when it is so obviously a cause and effect situation?
I think the answer is a combination of many things.
As a moral person, I cannot wish ill on anyone. I also cannot celebrate when disaster is visited upon another, no matter how I feel about that person. I am also part of a tradition that teaches to love my enemies, so it is incumbent on me to want what is good for those I am opposed to. I try hard to do this, though I admit I am not very good at it.
Ethically, however, I believe in a system in which people are held responsible. Certainly, I understand there are systemic forces such as racism and sexism and classism which make some decisions and actions more difficult if not impossible for marginalized people, but ultimately I do think people must understand cause and effect and how their actions lead to real world ramifications. As a professor, my entire pedagogy is based on this premise – you make choices and deal with the results of those choices. It’s real world culpability. It’s what being an adult is all about. So I think Trump SHOULD be held responsible for his actions. It IS largely his fault that he is sick. And regardless of whether he is home from the hospital or not, he is still sick.
But these two things can be true at the same time.
I can feel sympathy for his situation. I can feel bad that he is ill. I can feel bad for the fact that he is infecting others. I can recognize that this entire situation is fraught because nobody should ever be smitten with this disease because it is terrible.
But I can also recognize that he bears some responsibility, here. I can acknowledge his lack of seriousness about the disease without losing my sense of seriousness about it, as well.
I can say, this is tragic, but as in many tragedies it could probably have been avoided. That makes the situation MORE sad, not less. I feel sorry for him because his sense of entitlement and invincibility made him ill. I feel sorry for him because his toxic masculinity made him vulnerable. And I feel sorry for all the people he as put at risk for the sake of his ego.
But for those same reasons I recognize he is responsible for his illness, and the illness of so many others. Just because I feel sorry for him does not mean he is not culpable. I feel sorry for a lot of guilty people. Often, the reason they are guilty is why I feel sorry for them. In that way it is more like pity, I suppose. But for some people the very thing that makes them responsible is the thing that you should feel the most sorry about.
And that’s where we are with the president. He is sick with a debilitating disease and pitiable. Not exactly a strong appeal to ethos.
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first.