The Superspreader In Chief

Listen to this episode

S1: How is the president doing this is one of those questions that seems simple enough, but since his covid diagnosis last week, I feel like we’ve all learned how complicated the answer can be. On Saturday, Trump was said to be doing well. And then came reports he required supplemental oxygen and had a fever, which is when Trump himself started releasing videos to prove how well he was.

S2: I came here, wasn’t feeling so well. I feel much better now. We’re working.

Advertisement

S1: He’s not wearing a mask in these videos, by the way.

S2: We’re going to beat this coronavirus or whatever you want to call it, and we’re going to beat it soundly. So many things.

S1: Eventually, Sunday afternoon, the president convinced his doctors to let him drive around Walter Reed Medical Center and wave to supporters outside.

S3: Oh, my God.

S1: And still, if you were watching all this, you might have asked yourself, how is the president doing?

S4: Because when it comes to claims about Trump’s health, the first story has never been the real story. It’s always been the sell. And as the president keeps selling the American people on his health, what we know is that even if he’s doing fantastically well, he has an infectious virus. It makes you wonder who else is he exposing to the virus right now?

Advertisement

S5: Yeah, right. So Trump’s whole interpretation about this match is everything we know about Trump, which is he doesn’t think about other people. He thinks only about himself.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: Will Saletan covers politics for Slate. Well, a lot of people are thinking about what happens if Trump takes a turn for the worse. Will has been thinking about what we’re left with if Trump recovers.

S5: We have Trump obsessing about his own health, trying to assure the public that he’s safe, but clearly in his behavior, not thinking about infecting others.

S6: To Donald Trump, it’s he thinks this is not his problem unless he personally is sick, his behavior and to what extent it might infect others, it just doesn’t enter his mind.

Advertisement

S1: Today on the show, the president has tested positive for covid does he realized what that means for the rest of us? I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick around. So we’re speaking Sunday afternoon, we just watched a press conference from the president’s doctors and this presser, it felt kind of like a corrective after a weekend filled with conflicting information about the health of Donald Trump and the people around him. Can we just talk about this wild ride of misinformation we’ve been on?

S5: Oh, yeah, absolutely. So, you know, from an ordinary person’s point of view, you might think, OK, I don’t want to hear from the political spin people in the White House. I don’t want to hear from the Republican Party. I don’t want to hear from Trump. And so I want to hear from doctors because doctors tell the truth. Actually, it turns out that doctors can spin just like everyone else.

Advertisement

S7: And these doctors have Dr. Sean Connelly, physician to the president.

S5: I shouldn’t say doctors, plural. There’s one doctor, Trump’s physician, Sean Connelly, who has given a couple of press conferences. And in the first one on Saturday, he spun. There’s not another not not a nicer way to put it. He was asked directly several times whether Donald Trump had received oxygen, which is something one often needs. If your blood oxygen goes down due to covid and it can indicate more severe illness, yes, it can. Connelly was asked several times at the briefing at Walter Reed on Saturday whether Trump had had had received oxygen. In fact, specific questions about which days and he hedges.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S8: He has not received any supplemental oxygen. He’s not on oxygen right now. That’s right. Has he ever been on supplemental? He right now he is not on. I know you keep saying right now, but should we read into the fact that he had been briefed yesterday and today he was not on oxygen, so he has not been on it during his current treatment is not on oxygen right now. I’m try to pin you down one more time. I know you said there’s no. Yeah, yeah, yeah. He’s not on oxygen today. Receive any on Thursday. And he’s with us today. Saturday. No, no. Thursday, no Thursday, Friday or Saturday. So that was why we were Thursday. No oxygen, none at this moment. Yeah. And yesterday with the team. Well, when we were all here, he was not on oxygen.

Advertisement

S5: Well, now it turns out that Trump did receive oxygen on Friday, just not quote while all the doctors were together. So here you have a physician trying to avoid telling the truth in a way that we normally associate with political operatives. So then on Sunday, Connelly gives a second briefing also at Walter Reed and is asked why he didn’t fess up about the oxygen.

S7: It’s a good question. So. I was trying to reflect the the the upbeat attitude that the team, the president, of course, of illness has had didn’t want to give any information that might steer the course of illness in another direction. And in doing so, you know, came off that we were trying to hide something that wasn’t necessarily true.

Advertisement

S5: Now, I don’t know how I don’t have any idea what he means by steer the course of illness, like if he tells the truth that the virus is going to hear that and do something bad to Trump. I don’t know what he means by that. But clearly he’s saying, I’m trying to give you an attitude, not information. But I think the truth is going to turn out to be that Connally was given very specific instructions about what to say and not to say. We know he said on Sunday in his second briefing that he was working very closely with Mark Meadows, the chief of staff. So we need to find out more about what consultations happen between those two men, about what was going to be said publicly.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: And that’s especially important because on Saturday, Mark Meadows changed his story a bit and had conflicting information with the doctor. So right after the doctor says everything’s looking great, he’s the president’s in great shape. Mark Meadows comes out and says, actually, it was a little touch and go on Friday. And, you know, we’re not quite out of the woods yet. And a little bit later, he says, but, you know, the president is great now. And it’s kind of this other layer of conflicting information where you just truly don’t know who to believe.

S5: Yeah, there’s really no one here you can trust and certainly not Mark Meadows, who, as you point out, has given different versions of events. What struck me in particular was that Connally was specifically avoiding answering two kinds of questions on in his first briefing on Saturday. One was about the oxygen in which he’d constructed this weird prepositional phrase formulation so that he didn’t have to admit that Trump had received oxygen on Friday and the other was about the fever. He wouldn’t talk about the severity of fever. Then on Sunday, he admitted that Trump had had a high fever.

Advertisement

S1: It strikes me also that one of the lessons of the last few days is that we are learning things in the media from unnamed sources first and then the White House is coming forward and confirming what various members of the media have learned. We learned that the president was on oxygen and was unwell on Friday from unnamed sources who spoke to the Times. And then a day or so later, you get the confirmation right.

S5: We get this from from the media and the media, get it from the anonymous sources who are, by the way, people in the White House or people around the president. And then we have the bizarre spectacle of Trump advisers denying information that they’ve given on background. So these people are putting out information anonymously, then challenging the media to prove it. You know, and I have to say this as a journalist to the public, when you hear the Trump campaign and Trump talking about fake news and its anonymous sources, it’s them, it’s their own people. And then they come out and they accuse us of fake news because our sources are anonymous. That is absolutely infuriating.

S1: I don’t get. Why the White House would do this, it it just makes them seem incompetent. And I’m I’m just not sure about the strategy. I mean, clearly, the president was unhappy with the idea that people knew that he was unwell. I guess I just don’t understand what the play is here with people releasing anonymous information that says one thing and then having the president contradict them and then having someone else say, well, OK, well, that was kind of true. It it doesn’t look great.

S5: Well, they’ve gotten away with this for so long. I mean, what people need to understand about this debacle, about the the virus and Trump lying, the virus is the first thing that came along that just didn’t care what Donald Trump said. Right. It’s just a virus. It’s going to infect as many people as it can. It can’t be cowed. It can’t be spun. It can’t be Snoad. It’s not some foreign leader who can be bullied. It’s not some, you know, Trump voter who just doesn’t care what the actual economic numbers are. It just infects and kills whoever it can kill. So the Trump strategy of lying and of denying, which has worked on other issues, just isn’t working on this one. I have to say that I had a crisis of confidence partway through this this pandemic that it was going to work, that I mean, the death toll is unbelievable, right? I mean, think back three hours. Less than three thousand people were killed on 9/11. And Trump said that that was an outrage and George W. Bush should be held accountable for it. We are over two hundred thousand. We are in six figures of deaths. And Trump is still going incredibly with this strategy of don’t pay attention to that.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S6: You know, that was going to happen anyway. You know, it’s really it’s sad. But, hey, it hardly you know, hardly anyone is affected. And just focus on the economics, get the economy moving. Most people will feel that he asking people to basically ignore it.

S1: It was telling to me watching the Sunday shows, seeing National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, he was on Face the Nation and his clear message was, you know, the president still in charge. But there is this moment where he kind of used the TV show to speak to the president.

S9: I want to take him home because I know the president watches your show, Margaret and others do, to just extend the best wishes of the American people to him and the first lady, to the senators and to my colleagues who have this. You know, again, having went through this myself, you’re going to get through it. Listen to your doctors and to me.

S1: I watched that and I thought. This is the problem, like you shouldn’t be using a television show to communicate with your boss, especially when he’s the president, like it raised real questions to me about the state we’re in now in terms of how the White House and upper functions of government are working.

S5: Absolutely. And it’s not just O’Brien. I mean, Mark Meadows, the chief of staff, came out at the White House to brief reporters not wearing a mask. By the way, after all this has blown up, Meadow’s comes out to talk to reporters and he practically opens with the statement, the president’s doing great. He feels great. He’s probably critiquing me as I’m speaking in a true fashion.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S8: He’s probably critiquing the way that I’m answering these questions.

S5: He’s he’s talking about how how conscious he is that the person he most cares about in the audience. Is the president watching him? And what is the president watching Mark Meadows for to make sure that he delivers the message that Trump wants delivered? And the message clearly is the same message that Dr. Sean Connelly was putting out how great the president is doing. Stay upbeat. Right. And when you, as the viewer, know that the audience that the speaker cares about is the president, not you, and that the president is trying to deliver a message, not the truth, you just can’t believe anything these people are telling you. They’re not trying to give you information. They’re trying to please their boss.

S1: And it raises the other question, which is there’s a chance if you have a major medical diagnosis that you will not be able to serve in this role, which requires a lot of mental capacity. And so there is a mechanism in place to transfer power. Other presidents have done it. What is the mechanism? How does it work? And what is what we’re seeing tell you about whether it will be applied appropriately?

S5: I don’t know the exact details of the procedure. The in in general, there are ways that the president can delegate that authority, can, you know, certify that he’s incapacitated and pass that along. But it has to be him. He has to do that unless unless there’s going to be an invocation of the 25th Amendment, which clearly isn’t going to happen. The problem is that this president doesn’t think about what who would be best to handle decisions in the event that he’s incapacitated. He thinks about the message that is sent and he knows that if he authorizes a delegation of authority, that that’s signaling from his standpoint, weakness. Right. That the president’s in trouble and he wants to project strength. I mean, that’s why he doesn’t wear the mask. He’s not concerned about what is safe, what is best for the country. He’s concerned about image. So it’s extremely unlikely that he is going to undertake any of the voluntary steps that he would need to undertake in order to to transfer power, even on a very temporary basis.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: Yeah, and it stood out to me that we’re at this particular moment in the presidency where so many people who might have stood up and said, hey, we need to do things differently, you know, given bad news to the president, they’re out and they’ve been replaced by people who are. Yes. Men.

S5: And that means that in a situation like this, it’s just especially precarious, right, part of what’s going on at this point is this gradual filtration effect over the last three. I mean, there used to be people who stood up to Trump and in fact, famously his former chief of staff, John Kelly, told the president that if he surrounded himself with yes men, he would end up getting impeached. Well, that was proven quite prescient. He was impeached. So gradually the people who stood up to him have been removed. And the people who remain are those who tell him what he wants to hear. I mean, part of what is so grotesque about what’s happened here with the infections is that it it reflects the larger pattern of the Trump family thinking they’re immune, thinking they don’t have to follow the same rules as other people. I mean, we have the the debate in Cleveland on Tuesday where everyone is supposed to wear a mask. It was the rules of the Cleveland Clinic and of the debate that everyone has to wear a mask. The Biden people at the debate wore a mask. The Trump family took their masks off. They thought that that wasn’t necessary for them, the rules didn’t apply to them, and they thought they were protected from that. And what I think is going to be the much larger scandal coming out of this is going to be on Thursday, two days later, when Trump when the White House knows that hope picks Trump. Senior adviser, who has been very close to Trump, physically very close to Trump and others, has been diagnosed, has covid that after that point, the helicopter takes off, the plane takes off, they go to Bedminster and Trump sits around a table at a fundraiser with people who have no idea that he has just been with someone who has just been diagnosed with the virus. And he exposes those people to the risk of the virus. I mean, technically, that’s exposing people to the virus without their knowledge and just tries to hide it from them to get money to get money. He collects millions of dollars at this fundraiser in an extremely dangerous situation. All we know about Trump’s knowledge at this point, I believe, is that on the way back from Bedminster, from that fundraiser, he says on the plane, apparently, that he is aware of Hope Hicks diagnosis. But we know also that three aides, close aides to Trump, including not just mean Jared Kushner, Kayleigh McInerney, the press secretary, these people are pulled off of the helicopter before they go to Bedminster. It’s almost inconceivable that Trump himself did not ask why that was done. And the reason was because those people had been close to hope. Hicks well, Donald Trump had also been close to Hope Hicks, but Donald Trump wanted to go and get that money at the fundraiser. So he exempted himself from the rules that they just applied to three other people, taking them off the flight so that he could go and collect that money. That I believe will be the largest scandal coming out of this.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S4: Will Saletan and I, we’ll be right back after this break.

S1: Let’s talk about how this series of positive tests are affecting the presidential campaign trumps, obviously off the campaign trail and Pence has been working from home, but it sounds like he’s going to get back out there this week, which seems questionable to me when he’s next in line to assume the office. You have Joe Biden and his wife still out there, too, and you have a vice presidential debate coming up in just a couple of days. I wonder what you think about all of this. Like, should we be criticizing Biden more for not stepping back again? Should we how should we react to the vice president getting back on the trail?

S5: Well, the Biden part is easy to answer, right? One candidate took extra precautions to be safe to protect himself and others always wearing a mask, even according to the second candidate who took no precautions. I mean, Donald Trump stood on the debate stage on Tuesday and criticized Joe Biden for wearing a mask when Trump said it wasn’t necessary to do so. So, no, I don’t think Joe Biden, who took the extra measures to be safe, deserves criticism for then being able to go out and do his job as a candidate and speak to people. And by the way, Joe Biden doesn’t speak to people at these events the way Donald Trump does. Biden wears a mask when he comes to and fro. He does most of his events virtually. There is social distancing. So absolutely not the candidate who takes precautions to protect himself and others should be allowed to continue to do the very safe events that he does while the candidate who took no precautions and got infected and quite possibly infected others has to stay quarantined.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: I see what you’re saying. But he was, you know, locked in a room with someone who’s now infected with the coronavirus, yelling at him for an hour and a half last week. Doesn’t the science suggest he should be quarantining?

S5: That’s an interesting question. By the strict definition of quarantine, if you have been in contact with someone who is known to be infected, yes, you need to you need to observe a quarantine period. I think if I back up on the strictest definition of quarantine, yes, Joe Biden should stay away from others, should isolate at home. I don’t think that’s necessary in this case. Joe Biden just went to Michigan and gave remarks to the press. I believe that he had a several events scheduled for that day and cancelled all of them, except for the one where he stood at a podium far away from anyone else wearing a mask. The entire time he walked, he didn’t take the mask off and delivered remarks. So I would call that behavior taking that he is taking extra precautions to protect others by canceling all events except the one at which he was most distant from others and at which he wore a mask the entire time.

S1: I’m thinking about what Joe Biden is doing and how he’s campaigning. It really does make me think about the vice presidential debate and what that should even look like. You know, is it enough that the candidates will be 12 feet apart as Joe Biden and Donald Trump were? You know, if you were Kamala Harris, I’m wondering how you would shift what this debate will be like to respond to this moment.

S5: Well, the Harris camp wants to once the two candidates, she and Vice President Pence to be, I believe, a dozen feet apart at podiums, not around a table as was originally conceived. My guess is she’ll probably get that. I’m guessing the debate will go forward. One interesting fact to consider about that debate is that by that time, we will be past the point at which we will know for sure that Joe Biden is not infected. People have to be aware just because you get a negative test, just because Biden has had a couple of negative tests since he was with Trump does not mean that he’s not infected for sure. There’s an incubation period. And, you know, right around this weekend, we will be pretty sure that he’s past that. So by the time we get to the vice presidential debate, we will know whether Joe Biden, having stood about a dozen feet away from Donald Trump while Donald Trump may have been infected, was not himself infected. And I think that gives you a little more comfort in terms of putting Kamala Harris a dozen feet away from Mike Pence.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: How is catching the coronavirus good or bad for Trump politically? Like there is this idea that maybe it will generate sympathy and that could be part of reelecting him? Is that what you think, too?

S5: Yeah, I think there is some sympathy for him. I mean. As soon as his infection was announced, there were people on Twitter, on the left celebrating and there were people like me who said don’t celebrate, and Rachel Maddow saying don’t celebrate. And Joe Biden saying, don’t celebrate, show some sympathy, show some support. It it’s unseemly. It’s inhumane to wish ill on anyone, including Donald Trump. What’s much more likely to hurt Donald Trump is that the focus of this conversation can shift and I believe is shifting from Donald Trump’s health situation and how he got infected to how he endangered and possibly infected others. That’s a completely different conversation. I mean, Donald Trump, God willing, will get better, is getting better and will be back on the campaign trail. And then we will be left only with the question of the measures that the White House failed to take and the protocols they violated, what Trump knew when he knew it and why he proceeded to endanger others, apparently for the sake of large campaign contributions in the form of these fundraisers.

S1: And he keeps the coronavirus at the front of the news, which is something the president did not want.

S5: Right. And can we just stand back and say how bizarre it is that we have even these blind quotes? We have we have anonymous quotes from people who work for Donald Trump, who work in the White House, who work on the campaign, talking about how bad it is, how they want to keep the coronavirus out of the news, a thing that is killing that has killed more than two hundred thousand Americans. And they’re just openly saying we’re trying to get people to ignore this. I mean, it is a grotesque campaign strategy. To some extent it has worked, but I think it’s running out. Failure is punishing these people. Their failure to control the virus, their attempt to wish it away, to fight it is failing.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: Yeah. I mean, we should say that all presidents try to keep information about their health away from the public. What do you think it is that makes this circumstance different?

S5: I can’t think of another case where the medical threat to the president was a threat to other people as a result of his actions. So to me, that’s the fundamental distinction. You’re absolutely right that presidents have tried to hide health problems. I believe in every one of those cases. It has simply been a matter of the president may have been incapacitated in some way when there may have been a national security risk and you weren’t told they can in those situations. They can say, hey, we didn’t want the Russians or the Chinese or some other nefarious enemy to know that for those five hours the vice president was in control or whatever it was. But this is different. This is different because I just keep thinking of Trump sitting around a table with these Republican donors in New Jersey, some of whom were old there in the high risk group. And this is this is not like the president has a cardiac problem. This is that the president has an infectious disease and hiding that.

S6: That is just the height of irresponsibility.

S4: Will Saletan, thank you so much for joining me. Oh, thank you, Mary. Will Saletan writes about politics for Slate. He’s the author of the book Bearing Right. And that’s the show before we go, I have a quick favor to ask. A bunch of you have called in to let us know how you’re planning to make your own vote count or help the people around you have their vote count to. Thank you so much. And if you haven’t had a chance to call us yet, just give us a ring. Leave us a message. Two zero two eight eight eight two five eight eight. What Next is produced by Jason de Leon, Daniel Hewitt, Mary Wilson and Elena Schwartz. We are led by Alison Benedict and Alicia Montgomery. And I’m Mary Harris. Thanks for listening. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.