The “The President Has COVID” Edition

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S1: This ad free podcast is part of your Slate plus membership.

S2: Hello and welcome to Slate political gabfest for October 2nd and twenty twenty, yes, you heard that right. If the president has covid edition, I’m David Plotz.

S3: I’m in Washington, D.C. We’re doing a special Slate Plus edition about the extraordinary, just extraordinary news that came out late last night. I’m joined, of course, from New York City by John Dickerson, who’s in a punchy, punchy mood. Hello.

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S1: John Dickerson of CBS News put a red bandana on his face for all of our listeners.

S4: It’s been a good morning. David, it’s been a long morning already to get being awakened in the middle of the night and doing morning television. But it’s good to be with you guys.

S1: He’s a bandit.

S3: I guess that is Emily Bazelon of the New York Times Magazine and Yale University Law School. She’s in New Haven. How do they wake you? Would you do you have a special alert on your phone that they can wake you? No, no. I just keep they keep calling until I wake up. If someone called me at 2:00, 3:00 a.m., I would not wake up. Let’s get started. So the news came late last night if you’re John Dickerson or early this morning for the rest of us, of course, that the president and the first lady have been infected with the coronavirus. They’ve tested positive. And they also came the news earlier that Hope Hicks, who was a close presidential aide, had tested positive for the virus. And so there was already some alert, apparently within the White House that this might happen. So, John, just orient us for a minute. When did the president can test it? When did they find out that he was positive? And what what is happening right now?

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S4: So he was tested on Thursday. Hope Hicks, as you said, we knew on Thursday earlier that she had it. The president was tested on Thursday. The results came in at some point on Thursday. He tweeted about it at, I believe, one o’clock in the morning on Friday morning, 1:00 a.m. that he Melania had it. The vice president on Friday was news was released that he and Karen Pence had not tested positive. But as John Le Pook, the Dr. John Le Puke on CBS pointed out, you know, one of the interesting questions here is, did hope Hicks give it to the president or did aerobics and the president get it at the same time? And based on the incubation period, the fact that Mike Pence doesn’t have it as of Friday morning doesn’t mean that it might not still be incubating and Mike Pence might have it sometime later. That isn’t specific with respect to Mike Pence, is just to remember that there is a number of days in which this incubates. Now we’re just waiting to find out, as the White House does, contact tracing who’s in the sphere of that contact.

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S1: Did he do a Republican fundraiser also on Thursday with donors and said, I believe he did.

S4: So he’s in Minnesota on Tuesday, as on Wednesday he’s on. And that’s when he was with Hope Hicks. But if he was if he got it beforehand and they both got it simultaneously, not one after the other, that means he was in a position potentially to convey it in on Wednesday in Minnesota. And then he had a New Jersey fundraiser on Thursday. So which was the day that Hope Hicks tested positive. So if he got it at the same time as Heggs, we know by Thursday it’s very possible that he was in the same condition she was, which was which was to say would be in a position to pass it along. So all those questions are all still up in the air.

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S1: And he knew all of that on Thursday because he knew that she tested positive before he did this New Jersey fundraiser.

S4: Yes, the president knew and people within the White House knew that they had been either in contact with or in an organization in which one of the top people had tested positive but continued business as usual, including having a press conference with reporters. But the president has now canceled, obviously everything, all of his fundraisers and all of his travel for the moment going forward.

S3: Well, I mean, it’s funny that you say the word obviously there, John, because you know what’s been. Evident about this White House as they’ve been extremely lax and careless about some of the precautions that people are taking elsewhere. So it’s from what I understand, you know, it’s a campaign staff of White House staff that is not works in the building is not always masked. The president is not always masked. They’re doing lots of events in enclosed spaces. And so they’ve been reckless according to the standards of today. Like they’re doing all kinds of things that I think most of the American public isn’t most. The American public is cautious about doing significant gatherings over a significant period of time in enclosed spaces. And yet this president and this White House have been have been cavalier about it. And so the yes, it is it’s certainly good and responsible for them to cancel upcoming events. But it would have been a lot more responsible and careful for them to have been avoiding these kinds of events beforehand.

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S1: So, I mean, they’ve been using rapid lots of testing to mitigate risk, but they’ve also been interacting with lots of people outside of that testing bubble, at these fundraisers, at events, at rallies, et cetera.

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S3: So, John, there is a debate scheduled, I think it’s for October 15th. There’s a vice presidential debate scheduled for next week. Both Kamala Harris and Mike Pence have now said that they have not tested positive at the moment. As we mentioned for Pence, there’s a presidential debate that is scheduled for the 15th. Is there any word right now about whether that debate is on or off?

S4: It’s on, but, you know, developments are still tumbling in including, by the way, what’s up with the vice with Vice President Biden? And again, the all clear is in a one time thing, it’s over a period of days. I mean, he was, you know, for 90 minutes close to the president while the president was talking, sometimes shouting and same with same with Chris Wallace. We know that the six foot distance is not enough if you’re in 90 minute proximity, six feet long enough, especially if you’re not massed. You know, regular tests of Vice President Biden would seem to me to be totally appropriate. And just to go back to your point, David, you know what? This what’s extraordinary about this is or reminds us all is that covid waits for no man. The president has downplayed the virus consistently. He made fun of the vice president wearing masks. He has repeatedly undermined his own public health officials when they tried to talk about the serious and unrelenting nature of covid-19. And now it’s become the case that it gets past even the most secure location in America.

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S1: I, of course, wish the president and the first lady and Topix a speedy recovery. But I want to talk a little bit about the political implications. Are is it just totally unclear? Because if Trump has a mild case, if he shakes this off and emerges, you know, victorious over this virus, then he goes on to kind of gather momentum from that and strength. Then he shows up the debates and says, I’m fine, everything’s fine, or he gets really sick. And that’s like a totally different fork in the road. And it’s just so hard to say what’s going to happen until we know what course the virus takes.

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S3: Do you really believe, Emily, that if the president has a mild case and shakes it off, that that is a vote altering event in this election? Do you think there’s this reservoir as well of people who are like, you know what, I wasn’t going to vote for him, but now that he’s now that he has recovered from covid, I. I think maybe I should go out and vote for him. He’s not a person who’s whose well-being and health and and sort of inspires much sympathy or interest, really.

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S1: Well, what if just the fact that he’s kind of quiet for a couple of weeks is helpful to him. Right. Like when he recedes from the field, he’s usually better off. So what if he now has a really good excuse for missing the next debate, maybe both of the upcoming debates? And he just sort of becomes a more mild presence in American life. Could that be helpful to him in terms of the election?

S4: Well, I think to the extent that this keeps not only the issue front and center on which he is doing very badly in the polls, his handling of coronavirus and the way in which he handled his own experience with it, including on Friday when the chief of staff, Mark Meadows, who had just been in with the infected patient number one, and then went out to brief reporters without a mask, explaining, well, I was tested. Thereby showing ignorance about the way the testing works and the transmission of the virus this many months into a pandemic only repeats the constant, unrelenting downplaying and misinformation from the single place you’re supposed to get the best information. So to the extent that this compounds and turns into neon, all of the underlying mistakes from the administration, I’m not sure that that’s great while voting is going on. And so it’s unclear. But but it’s I don’t think this is something that the White House wants at the center of the conversation in this kind of keeps it there.

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S1: I mean, the other thing is that Trump doesn’t like to be weak and this makes him seem weak, so.

S5: Right. I was going to ask you about that, Emily, which is that that is the thing that he loathes above all. And so I think he I’m sure he is he is eager to show back, show up again in rude, good health and and be shaking his fist and making faces again and shouting. But if he can’t do that, do you think it damages him in a way that affects the race at all?

S1: If he if he doesn’t get better and can’t come back valid and defiant? Yeah, I don’t think that’s good for him at all. That’s part of why I think this really depends on what happens next, though. I take John’s point. You’re totally right about the centrality of this. I mean, now we’re all going to be in coronavirus land as opposed to in the land of Amy CONI Barrett. I mean, she’ll show up when she has her hearings and a couple of weeks. The distractions, though, are going to be like harder to get on center stage for the White House.

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S4: And you can imagine some. I mean, I you just hope that people don’t partisans don’t become their worst selves in in wishing ill on the president or making light of it or all of that. I mean, there’s because not only is that ghoulish on its own terms, but also remember, we’re all connected. We all know people who have died or are suffering of this or whose family members have died. And when you express glee, you’re mucking around with lots of other people.

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S5: Use the word ghoulish. John, I think there’s a whole ghoulish train that is making its way down the tracks, which is around what would happen if the president is incapacitated or dies between now and Election Day or after Election Day. Again, to posit this, A, it’s unlikely that covid death rates are very low. The incapacitation rates are very low, too. And certainly nobody wishes this upon the president. Nobody wishes that pain and suffering the president and his family. But what would happen, Emily, maybe you want to take it from legal perspective or John, if you have it at the tip of your tongue, I mean, I think it depends when and what we’re talking about.

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S1: If Trump were to withdraw from the nomination before the election, then it’s up to the Republican Party to replace him. And obviously, this would be the same for Joe Biden on the Democratic National Committee. The trickiest thing seems to be what happens if a candidate wins the November election and then dies or withdraws before the Electoral College meets in December. American law is not like 100 percent clear on that. And so that raises the prospect of that question going to the courts. But I mean, just talking about it makes me feel like we’re getting way ahead of ourselves. And what is more relevant right now is what happens before the election.

S3: So one of the things I think we want to keep an eye on is where this spreader event, maybe Supercenter better event, which has now affected the president and the first lady, where it came from, where it’s going. We had news this morning that Amy CONI Barrett had tested negative. Bill Barr is being tested. Mike Pompeo has tested negative. John, I think you just mentioned there was another positive test for.

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S4: Right. So for Ron McDaniel, who’s the GOP chairwoman. So she tested positive Wednesday, but apparently didn’t disclose. And she had been with Trump. She didn’t disclose, period. She had been with Trump last Friday. So she might be this is highly speculative, but it’s what they’re it’s the pell-mell effort they’re involved in, which is trying to figure out who had it when and who got it from whom. So, you know, what’s interesting about that to me is if she had it last Friday and that’s how Trump got it, there’s no evidence that’s the case. But they were together. She tested positive on Wednesday, which is a day earlier than Hope Hicks. Did Trump have it at the debate? Which is a really interesting question to me, because, A, it’s interesting because that means Biden has to get, you know, has to be worried. But secondarily, it just reemphasizes the continuing narrative throughout the Trump response to this, which has been not to take it with sufficient seriousness. And and now we see the dominos falling.

S5: And not just did Trump have it potentially at the debate? Did the people who were there in Trump’s circle potentially have it? And was that room more than just let’s suppose the president had it, but other people, it was the room more chockablock with the virus than it should have been. And you had this awful spectacle of the people who were there to support President Biden were all masked, the people who were there to support President Trump or not, for the most part, massed. There was a comment today from one of Biden’s guests who herself had lost her dad to covid, saying, you know, if if it turns out that we were significantly exposed there, it’s it’s shocking and terrible.

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S1: Can we just talk for a second about the vice presidential debate next week? I mean, this sort of puts more attention on that raises some challenges, I think, for both Pence and Harris, because they don’t want to act as if they’re suddenly on center stage. And yet this is going to loom over every minute of that event.

S5: Well, we also we just don’t know how the president’s illness might have played out by then. I mean, if he’s if he it’s a very mild case and he is already kind of back in action or if he’s gotten sicker, I mean, that totally changes how how it’s played during that debate. Right.

S1: Even if it’s still mild, though, on that day, he could still get sick after that. Right. Like, you have to wait longer than that to really know the course of the virus.

S4: Right. Right. I mean, it’s a it’s a it’s a very tricky. So three things occur to me. One, it’s very tricky. So on the nose, you don’t want to. You don’t want to like speculating about the president being incapacitated or dying, which happens in the context of vice presidential debates because that is one of the duties of the job.

S6: And seeing whether the person is going to have the job is up for the task is a perfectly appropriate thing to talk about. But talking about it in proximity to something where that could be a part of the storyline is is just this is a difficult and intense thing and also creates the opportunity for histrionics and, you know, acting out second thing. So the most important thing to meet, it seems to me, about the vice presidential debate is that Mike Pence was the head of the coronavirus task force. And what we are talking about here is in specific with respect to the president’s case, but also more broadly whether the White House was up to the job and whether the White House, whether they were sufficiently responded, had the sufficient kind of sense of alarm. I mean, remember that the vice president was the one in early June who said the press was overreacting to the idea that there was going to be an increase in cases and then there was as if he was trying to hit the mark perfectly. A massive summer spike right after he said that, which exacerbated the original misperception and underplaying of the nature of the coronavirus. So there are a whole host of issues that are much more important, frankly, in real time about the White House response than the speculative questions about stepping in for the end of the presidency, all of which I don’t envy. Susan Page is moderating the debate for having to to balance with if, in fact, the debate goes forward.

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S5: You know, let’s just close, I think what’s what’s remarkable about this, and it’s hard for me because I’m sure Jocelin, our producer, has edited this into into glorious, cogent sentences is how hard a time we’ve had talking about it. This is a really hard subject to talk about. It is hard because it is unknown. It’s hard because there is no doubt that there are people on the left who are feeling a sense of schadenfreude. It’s absolutely the case. And at the same time, people know like this is awful. This is awful for the president and his family. And they are human beings who should not suffer and shouldn’t be ill. And yet there’s this sense like, well, there’s a version of like, is this a kind of divine justice or the president’s mishandling of the pandemic? It’s not it’s just a cruel disease. But I think it’s I think our difficulty in talking about it reflects how confusing these next few weeks are going to be, because it’s it is it is very confounding to talk about the president’s personal health, the pandemic, like the you know, the recklessness of the behavior of the White House. You know, the effect on a presidential race, the incapacity of the potential incapacity or death of the president, and how that affects, you know, Congress and the Constitution. It’s it’s very, very difficult to talk about.

S1: I think the hardest thing for me is that uncertainty seems so unhelpful right now, like we’re already having a legitimacy crisis or imagining that we could about this election. And that is largely at the feet of President Trump. Forget about him being sick with the coronavirus. That’s just all of the chaff he’s been throwing up about balloting. These are this is the most powerful office in the world. And so just throwing any more element of surprise and uncertainty into that just seems awful for the world as well as for the country.

S5: This special episode of The Gabfest is produced by Jocelyn Frank, our researchers, Bridget Dunlap, please follow us on Twitter at at Slate Gabfest Gabfests.

S2: We’ll be back with a regular episode for you next week or who knows, maybe we’ll be back tomorrow at this rate. This is our third episode of the week. We’ll talk to you soon. Bye bye.