September 26 was a festive day for Republicans in Washington. Under overcast skies, President Donald Trump strode to a podium in the White House Rose Garden to introduce Judge Amy Coney Barrett as his nominee to replace the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. A military band played “Hail to the Chief,” and about 150 guests, including senior members of the Republican Party, the president’s Cabinet, and the Senate, sat shoulder to shoulder and mostly without masks as they cheered the nomination of a 48-year-old conservative to a lifetime seat.
The mood was upbeat in part because Barrett appeared to have the votes for confirmation before the president ever uttered her name. In the previous few days, Senate Republicans, one after the other, had announced their support for Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s plan to ram Trump’s nominee through their chamber in the five weeks before Election Day. Barrett’s confirmation would give conservatives a 6–3 majority on the Supreme Court and a lasting insurance policy in case Trump lost his bid for a second term.
Just over a week later, Trump’s Rose Garden event suddenly seems far more ominous, and the idea of Barrett’s preelection confirmation is in doubt. What had been a celebration now appears, in retrospect, to have been a super-spreading catastrophe. The president is hospitalized with COVID-19, and several infections of high-ranking government and Republican Party officials have been plausibly linked to the event. Among those who have taken ill are the chair of the Republican National Committee, Ronna McDaniel; the president’s campaign manager, Bill Stepien; the current and former Trump advisers Hope Hicks and Kellyanne Conway; and the president of the University of Notre Dame, John Jenkins.