What If the President Gets Sick?

The public deserves to know right away whether the chief executive is infected with the coronavirus. He should have gotten tested sooner.

Evan El-Amin / Shutterstock / The Atlantic

Donald Trump acknowledged today that he has been tested for the coronavirus, which causes the disease COVID-19, but says he does not yet know the results. He told reporters at the White House that he took his temperature this morning and it was “totally normal.” At the Conservative Political Action Conference and then at Mar-a-Lago, President Trump stood close to people known to be infected with the coronavirus. Given the contagiousness of the virus, it’s reasonable to worry that the president himself may now be infected. Yet the White House for days insisted that the president did not need to be tested. At almost midnight last night, the White House blasted to reporters a letter from Trump’s doctor repeating the claim that no test was called for. In the president’s reversal today, he made it seem as if the idea had only just occurred to him.

He said he was finally prompted to seek testing after reporters asked him during a press conference yesterday whether he would do so—a press conference in which he was surrounded by other people. By waiting this long to get tested, Trump engaged in gross dereliction of duty. Not only might the president fall gravely ill himself, but he might—and quite possibly already has—spread the illness to others. He has engaged in risky behaviors long after he should have stopped: shaking hands, sharing microphones, gathering crowds, standing very close to people of advanced age.

Any other president would see it as his or her job to model safe behavior. Trump is the president, the head of state. His mental and physical health are vital public concerns. Why is Trump continuing to act in ways that threaten himself and others?

At moments of national crisis, there is a strong instinct to support the president’s leadership. In the media, this instinct expresses itself in the impulse to suppress our knowledge of the president’s history and character, and to report on him the way we would have reported on his predecessors. But just as the president has a duty, so do we. Our duty is to describe things as they are, not as we would wish them to be. The coronavirus is a powerful force, but it is not powerful enough to transmute Donald Trump into a different person from the one he was before the crisis.

So when we talk about the president and his protracted refusal to test, we should not write about that decision as if the president who were refusing the test were a figure from Mount Rushmore. It’s Trump. Why did he delay such an urgent health precaution for so long?

Five reasons based on hard experience come to mind.

  1. Donald Trump is a fearful person. He is terrified of sharks. He is especially fearful of disease and death. He banished his chief of staff from the room for coughing. He told a German magazine in 2007 that he would not go near his own children when they were sick. Any medical test is an encounter with mortality. By refusing to look, the encounter is avoided—or postponed. Private citizen Trump hired oddball doctors who assured him that he was in fabulous condition when he obviously was not. President Trump promoted a White House doctor who suggested that Trump might possibly live to 200 given his “fabulous genes.” It’s plausible that Trump doesn’t want to be tested for fear of being told otherwise.
  2. Pro-Trump propaganda depicts the president as muscular and virile. He himself retweeted a meme of his face Photoshopped onto the body of a young Sylvester Stallone. In fact, Trump is obese and rarely exercises beyond hitting a golf ball. A test that revealed illness would pierce the Trump image in ways intolerable to the president. The experience of illness is a humbling one. The ill person tumbles out of a universe of self-sufficiency into another, where he or she must depend on the care of others. But Trump sees himself as always in control, always in command. Better not to know.
  3. Coronavirus tests are in desperately short supply because of Trump’s own negligence and that of his administration. He squandered preparation time because of his own characteristic defects as a manager, most notably his insatiable need for validation and flattery. Trump taking a coronavirus test would remind an anxious country that tests are available only for some, and not others. For Trump to cut to the head of the queue would remind everybody that it is his fault the queue is so long.
  4. Trump’s supreme priority as president has always been to make as much money as he can out of his hotels and resorts. One of his first acts as president was to double the initiation fee at Mar-a-Lago, from $100,000 to $200,000. People willingly paid because Trump dispensed so many rewards to his customers, including ambassadorships of South Africa and the Dominican Republic. But if Trump got sick, it is quite possible he got sick at Mar-a-Lago. What happens to Trump’s resort business if Mar-a-Lago is revealed as a plague spot, a disease epicenter? Business will collapse, and Trump’s personal finances will be hit.
  5. Even when nonlethal, COVID-19 can inflict debilitating suffering on those who succumb. Serious cases must be put on artificial respiration. They may be racked with diarrhea. Organs may fail too. COVID-19 patients can be in the hospital for weeks or even a month before they fully recover. The risk seems greatest for men over 70, with obesity as an additional risk factor—Trump’s exact medical profile.

What happens if President Trump does contract an illness that incapacitates him for days, weeks, or even longer? From the beginning of the Trump administration, many have joked about him as a candidate for the Twenty-Fifth Amendment on psychiatric grounds. If the coronavirus strikes him, depending on the severity, the Twenty-Fifth will have to be invoked on physiological grounds.

Trump is cunning and paranoid enough to recognize how much he is distrusted and disliked even by his own intimates, and certainly by his own party. If he has to step aside from office, will his vice president, Cabinet, and party in Congress really want to let him return? Maybe yes, but will Trump feel he can afford to take the risk? Better to carry on, exploit the weakness of others, and hope that he can bluff his way through self-inflicted disaster to one more comeback. That’s the path Trump has walked so successfully to this point. He’s not going to change now.