WASHINGTON - The coronavirus pandemic has again upended the U.S. presidential campaign with President Donald Trump’s announcement early Friday morning that he and first lady Melania Trump have contracted the potentially deadly virus.
Both the president and the first lady placed themselves in quarantine, and Trump was hospitalized at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in late afternoon following reports that he developed a fever. White House officials emphasized the president is not incapacitated and would continue to work from the hospital.
Trump’s battle with the coronavirus could rally public support for him, as often happens in a time of crisis. But it could also conflict with his campaign message that everything is getting back to normal.
“It's very unpredictable at this time,” said John Fortier, a political analyst with the Bipartisan Policy Center.
The second presidential debate, scheduled for October 15, could be postponed or canceled if Trump is too ill to participate or remains in quarantine to prevent the spread of infection. The debate, which was to be a town hall-style event with a live audience in Miami, could also be changed to a virtual format with participation via video conferencing.
With the November election just weeks away, Fortier said, both presidential candidates are making their “primary argument” to win over undecided voters and generate enthusiasm among supporters.
Trump had been holding mass rallies where he has downplayed the seriousness of the virus and many supporters have not worn masks. At an event in New Jersey on Thursday, the president said the development of a vaccine was imminent and that ''the end of the pandemic is in sight.”
The president falling ill could conflict with his campaign message “that everything is turning around, we're past this, and things are getting back to normal,” said Todd Belt, a professor of politics at George Washington University.
The death toll from COVID-19 in the U.S. has topped 208,000, and the infection rates in many states have recently been rising, according to Johns Hopkins University data.
The president has defended his administration’s response to the health and economic crises caused by the pandemic, saying the death toll would have reached into the millions had he not moved quickly to suspend travel from China where the outbreak originated and provided extensive medical support to states.
Belt said many people will be hard pressed to feel sympathy for Trump after his mocking of Democratic candidate Joe Biden and others for wearing masks, and after the president continued to hold events that violate social distancing guidance from health officials.
With the electorate already intensely divided over Trump, Fortier with the Bipartisan Policy Center said he can “imagine both sides feeling strongly that this is related to their feelings” and reinforce their political views about the coronavirus and the campaign.
Public opinion could also turn against Biden if his campaign is seen as mocking or ridiculing Trump for contracting the virus, Fortier said.
“I think it could be dangerous politically for Biden and really backfire on him,” he said.
Because of the pandemic, Biden had already cut back significantly on travel and instead waged a mostly virtual campaign with few in-person events and with mandatory masks and social distancing enforced.
During a speech Friday in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Biden said he sent “my prayers for the health and safety of the first lady and the President of the United States.”
“We can get this pandemic under control so we can get our economy working for everyone," Biden said. "But this cannot be a partisan moment. It must be an American moment.”
Biden has made what he has described as Trump’s mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic a major focus of his campaign, contrasting his plans to implement a national strategy to bring down the infection rate with the president’s downplaying of the virus.
While the White House says the president is experiencing only mild symptoms, there are risks that his condition could get significantly worse and even be life threatening. Trump, at age 74 and somewhat overweight, is in a high-risk category for complications from COVID-19 that can cause significant damage to the lungs and heart.
If the president were to become incapacitated, Vice President Mike Pence would assume the role of the acting head of the federal government and commander in chief.
Pence on Friday tested negative for the coronavirus. The White House is conducting widespread testing of officials who may have come in contact with the president and his senior aide Hope Hicks, who tested positive for COVID-19 on Thursday.
Biden, his wife, Jill, and Democratic vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris all tested negative for the coronavirus Friday.
Regarding the presidential campaign and November election, the Republican Party could replace Trump as the party nominee if he is unable to continue.
Voters backing the party would still cast their ballots for the Trump-Pence ticket. But because the U.S. Electoral College system uses the popular vote to pick electors pledged to the winning party, those electors affiliated with the Republican party could then vote for the new party nominee.