Donald Trump entered the final month of his reelection campaign needing to make up ground on Joe Biden. But the president’s COVID infection—an inevitability, given his cavalier attitude toward the coronavirus—is likely to keep him on the sidelines of the race. Though his administration has shrouded his condition in uncertainty and painted an optimistic picture of his health, the aggressive treatments Trump is receiving suggest a more severe bout with the illness that could threaten his life, let alone his ability to campaign. And even if he somehow is physically able to attend events, like his ill-advised campaign rallies or the remaining presidential debates, doing so would almost certainly fly in the face of safety precautions, as was the case with his bizarre joyride Sunday to wave to supporters outside Walter Reed.
So with Trump convalescing in the hospital, Mike Pence has become the acting face of Trumpworld. In a matter of days, Pence has gone from playing fawning surrogate to the face of his boss’s campaign, a mantle he’s sure to carry uneasily—the vice president shares in Trump’s vacuousness, but lacks the belligerent stage presence of the showman-in-chief. But his ramped-up campaign role has Republicans worried for another reason: With Trump’s health in jeopardy, Pence is a breath away from the presidency. And for Republicans in Washington, an aggressive campaign schedule for the vice president could put his own health at risk, raising the prospect of a Nancy Pelosi presidency.
“The president is in the hospital with a disease known to kill people,” former George W. Bush aide Scott Jennings told Politico. “Mike Pence’s health and security is paramount.”
Over the weekend—as Trump, several aides, associates, and GOP lawmakers battled illness—Pence worked from his residence. But the vice president, who tested negative for COVID-19, is gearing up for at least a week of travel, starting with a trip to Utah on Monday. His schedule also includes a rally in Arizona, a vice presidential debate against Kamala Harris, and a visit to Indiana to vote. Pence, head of the White House coronavirus task force, is said to have taken the virus more seriously than the president. But he, too, has been known to thumb his nose at safety precautions, like when he visited the Mayo Clinic in April without wearing a mask, and any amount of travel is likely to raise his risk. “You can no longer say, ‘There’s no way he’s going to catch this,’ because that’s what we told ourselves about the president and it still happened,” a White House official told Politico.
Not only does Pence taking on Trump’s campaign duties put him in the path of the virus that has waylaid the president, it might not do much to close the gap between him and Biden. “This effectively freezes the campaign at a point where the president’s at a deficit,” GOP pollster Neil Newhouse told the Washington Post. It would be a stretch to call Trump charismatic, but he at least knows he can energize his supporters. It’s hard to imagine Pence, blander than dry toast and about as palatable, doing the same. And with the president hobbled by a virus he’s done nothing but downplay, undermining the nation’s response to the pandemic, it’ll likely be even more difficult to win over any voters not already in the tank for Trump. “Anytime the conversation is about coronavirus,” a top administration official told the Post, “it’s not helpful for us.”
Perhaps Pence’s best chance to play catch-up this week will be in his debate with Harris in Salt Lake City, which has suddenly taken on even more importance. “He needs to deliver a very solid performance,” a Trump ally told NBC News, “and he needs to find a way to win.” That, too, could pose a challenge for the vice president. Though Harris’s advisers take him seriously as a debater, the California senator is known for her sharp arguing style, and is well-positioned to eviscerate Trump and to underscore Pence’s complicity. Pence may have stepped up his preparations—Axios reports that Pam Bondi, another former state attorney general, has replaced former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker as Harris’s stand-in—but he’ll still have his hands full trying to defend the record of a guy currently hospitalized with a virus he promised would miraculously disappear six months ago.
Still, one important lesson from 2016 is that it’s unwise to get too comfortable in this era of cult-like right-wing politics. Some in Trumpworld are hoping the president’s illness will foster some sympathy for him, and already supporters are speaking of him as some kind of martyr for having gotten infected. Confusion over his health and his exposing supporters, lawmakers, and aides to the virus are being shrugged off by many on the right, and allies in the media have continued to express the kind of reckless overconfidence that led to Trump’s sickness in the first place. “We don’t operate in fear,” campaign adviser Steve Cortes told Politico. “We will not cower or hide, not the country, nor the administration, nor our campaign.”
But behind that over-the-top optimism, there is frustration and fear within the president’s inner circle. More aides, including Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany, have tested positive for COVID. Even Donald Trump Jr. is concerned about his dad’s erratic behavior, as my colleague Gabriel Sherman reported Monday. And the president is in the throes of a disease that has killed over 210,000 Americans and that will, at the very least, be a major obstacle in overcoming the 14-point lead Biden opened up after Trump’s unhinged debate performance last week. “He’s falling down the stairs going faster and faster, which makes it harder and harder to regain his footing,” anti-Trump Republican strategist Mike Murphy told the Post. “He really needed a September reset, but instead he was broke and incompetent, and his debate was a disaster. And now he’s in quicksand in October and unable to even work the politics of a serious presidential illness correctly while the clock mercilessly ticks.”
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