President Trump’s coronavirus diagnosis shook Republicans like an earthquake. Then came the troubling aftershocks.
© Amanda Voisard/for The Washington Post President Trump walks to Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House on Friday en route to Walter Reed Military Medical Center, after testing positive for covid-19.
There was the positive test result for a prominent conservative GOP senator, Mike Lee of Utah. Then another for Republican Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina. Then the same news from Trump’s campaign manager, the chairwoman of the Republican Party and his former White House counselor.
And then on Saturday, as the president remained hospitalized, came word of two more high-profile Republicans close to the president testing positive for the virus — Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who had helped Trump prepare for last week’s debate.
After months in which Trump and others in his party questioned the danger of the virus and refused to take precautions such as wearing masks, the Republican Party is now coming face to face with the scientific realities of the pandemic.
The drip-drip-drip of positive tests, coupled with the specter of a president who as of Saturday was “not on a clear path to a full recovery,” as White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows put it, has prompted some Republicans to question whether the party is responsible for its own potential undoing.
And it has left them wondering how to wage a strong closing campaign when the judgment, actions and competence of its leaders were so squarely at issue just as voting is getting underway across the country.
“There was a panic before this started, but now we’re sort of the stupid party,” said Edward J. Rollins, co-chairman of the pro-Trump super PAC Great America. “Candidates are being forced to defend themselves every day on whether they agree with this or that, in terms of what the president did on the virus.”
“The president and the people around him flouted the rules,” said Republican strategist Michael Steel, who was an aide to former House Speaker John Boehner. “We wish him and his family a speedy recovery, but he has been reckless, and voters dealing with the health and economic effects on them and their families won’t look on that kindly.”
Stuart Stevens, a veteran Republican adviser who works with the anti-Trump Lincoln Project, said “there is fatalism” among GOP officials and donors. “They wonder, ‘What can you do? How can you spin this?’ ”
Stevens said, “If I were running a Senate race, I’d run out and say the White House should have taken this more seriously.”
Many Republican officeholders, however, remained publicly muted on Saturday about any unease over their political future as they hoped for Trump’s return and that voters would not deliver a harsh verdict in November.
Former New Hampshire senator Judd Gregg (R) said that will be the posture for most Republican candidates ahead of the election.
“There hasn’t been a coherent strategy from the president” but Democratic leaders have “politicized it and used it as a wedge,” Gregg said, arguing that voters would ultimately see the pandemic as “something that was like a horrible hurricane, where you can’t lay the blame and have little control over it.”
But Trump’s hospitalization at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, and a series of confusing statements from the White House about his condition, continued to send shudders of uncertainty through GOP ranks.
It was unclear when their leader would be able to return to the campaign trail, leaving the presidential race strangely quiet as Trump’s tweets dwindled in number and Democratic nominee Joe Biden took down negative advertising.
Even the event that only days ago was seen by many Republicans as a crowning achievement in an otherwise difficult year — installing Judge Amy Coney Barrett on the Supreme Court before Election Day — faced new hurdles amid senators’ virus diagnoses and revelations that multiple people may have become infected at her White House nomination ceremony.
Striking images of last weekend’s event, where influential Republicans and lawmakers mingled without masks, seemingly played on a loop on cable television, fueling critics who called the party reckless and enablers of superspreader events.
“Their extraordinary rejection of what scientists have been recommending is coming home to roost,” said Irwin E. Redlener, founding director of Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness.
Redlener, a former Biden adviser, said that “everyone who hitched themselves to the president’s dishonest messaging about the virus is being confronted with the reality that the president himself is sick.”
While GOP leaders publicly shrugged off concerns about the party’s operations and its message, private anxiety was rampant as aides and donors voiced frustration about the perceived lack of a strategy and guidance from Trump’s team amid a crisis with health, economic and political challenges.
But Republicans’ ability to escape being seen by moderate and independent voters as a party that has adopted a politics-first, science-second attitude could be difficult following months of cheering Trump’s handling of a pandemic that has killed more than 200,000 Americans.
As the administration’s coronavirus task force has pleaded with Americans to wear masks and socially distance, Trump has hosted rallies where face coverings have been scarce, encouraged the reopening of the nation’s economy and schools, claimed the virus will “just disappear,” and intentionally misled the public about its lethality because he did not want to “create a panic.”
Key Republicans were isolating on Saturday after recently testing positive for the coronavirus, including Trump campaign manger Bill Stepien and Ronna McDaniel, the chairwoman of the Republican National Committee. Other Trump advisers — such as former White House counselor Kellyanne Conway and Christie — have also tested positive.
Campaign advisers said on Saturday that they do not believe Trump will be back on the campaign trail for 10 to 14 days and more than a dozen trips to swing states in that period will probably be canceled or rescheduled. They declined to say if the large rallies that have become Trump’s staple will cease.
“We’re going to mobilize the entire MAGA universe to carry the president forward until he returns to the campaign trail,” campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh said.
Republican anxiety extends to the battle over the GOP’s Senate majority after Tillis — who is behind in the polls and is on the Senate Judiciary Committee, announced he tested positive on Friday. While he is asymptomatic, the senator said he would isolate at home for 10 days.
Lee, another member of the Judiciary Committee, and Johnson have also been diagnosed with the coronavirus over the past week, potentially complicating the plans of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to push through Barrett’s nomination.
McConnell said on Saturday that “floor proceedings will be postponed until October 19th” but said the “confirmation hearings for Judge Barrett’s nomination” will proceed as scheduled. GOP aides said that Barrett’s hearings could be conducted at least partially by remote video conference.
Polling across the political map over the past week has further darkened the outlook as incumbents flail in traditional GOP enclaves, particularly in the South, where Democrats are energizing the Black community and White suburban voters amid significant changes in several states’ populations.
Beyond Tillis, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, remains locked in a tight race with Democrat Jaime Harrison.
In the industrial Midwest, Democrats see a path for Biden and Democrats as the pandemic keeps rattling the region.
“I felt it before the president’s circumstances and I feel it even more now,” former Ohio governor Ted Strickland (D), a Biden ally, said on Saturday. Referring to Trump family members who removed their face coverings after entering the presidential debate hall last week in violation of ground rules, Strickland added: “You had the president’s family sitting in Cleveland, mask-less, and all of the others were wearing them. That sent a message to everyone watching: There is an incredible amount of arrogance around the president. People can see it clearly.”
Nationally, Biden is holding a steady advantage over Trump, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll last month. Biden and vice-presidential nominee Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) lead Trump and Vice President Pence by 53 percent to 43 percent among registered voters, statistically unchanged from the 12-point margin in a poll taken in August before the conventions.
Inside the Trump campaign and Trump-allied GOP circles on Saturday, some aides and strategists said they remain confident despite the turbulence, pointing to Trump’s upbeat tweets — he called on Congress to pass another stimulus bill — and to Vice President Pence as a political troubleshooter.
Pence, who has tested negative for the coronavirus in recent days, plans to travel extensively after his upcoming debate with Harris on Oct. 7 in Salt Lake City, a Pence aide said. Justin Clark, the deputy campaign manager, is working with Pence’s staff to orchestrate trips, along with surrogates.
“We are going to be maximizing family members, allies and surrogates in this upcoming stretch,” said Jason Miller, a senior adviser to the Trump campaign.
Pence’s debate is seen by some Republicans as an opening to both boost Trump with skittish voters and refresh the party’s message on the pandemic since Pence has led the coronavirus task force.
“All he has to do is be kind and pleasant, to be reassuring and competent,” said former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R).
Meanwhile, RNC and Trump campaign volunteers are going to keep up with ongoing field efforts, such as door-knocking campaigns, even though in-person fundraisers have been canceled, party officials said.
On Saturday, a group of top Republicans carried on campaigning in Iowa. For Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) and Trump political adviser Marc Lotter, among others, the road trip across the state was business as usual.
Lotter tweeted out photos from the tour, including a shot of Reynolds and Republicans without masks and high-fiving indoors. Posters with “Trump 2020” and “Trump: Keep America Great” were on the wall.