The US presidential election has been plunged into disarray after Donald Trump and his wife, Melania, tested positive for coronavirus following weeks in which the US president sought to suggest that the worst of the pandemic was over.
Trump announced his positive test in a tweet at 1 am, prompting US television networks to go to live coverage of the 74-year old president’s health, and his election campaign canceled a planned event in the key battleground state of Florida.
Trump and his wife were tested after one of his closest aides, the White House counselor Hope Hicks, began showing symptoms this week as she traveled to campaign events around the country with Trump’s entourage, including several other family members.
“Tonight, @FLOTUS and I tested positive for COVID-19,” Trump tweeted, adding that they would begin to quarantine immediately.
Melania Trump tweeted that she and the president “are feeling good and I have postponed all upcoming engagements”.
As too many Americans have done this year, @potus & I are quarantining at home after testing positive for COVID-19. We are feeling good & I have postponed all upcoming engagements. Please be sure you are staying safe & we will all get through this together.
— Melania Trump (@FLOTUS) October 2, 2020
Despite the reassuring messages, many have noted that Trump’s age and weight put him in a high-risk category for more severe forms of the disease.
Although Hicks was tested on Thursday after showing symptoms requiring isolation, Trump still traveled to New Jersey to meet supporters at his Bedminster golf club and delivered remarks at a fundraiser despite the high risk that his aide may have been infected.
The president’s doctor, Navy Commander Dr. Sean Conley, said in a statement early on Friday: “The president and first lady are both well at this time, and they plan to remain at home within the White House during their convalescence.
“The White House medical team and I will maintain a vigilant watch, and I appreciate the support provided by some of our country’s greatest medical professionals and institutions. Rest assured, I expect the president to continue carrying out his duties without disruption while recovering.”
With only a month to go until polling day on 3 November, and with Trump consistently trailing his opponent, Joe Biden, in opinion polls, the president will be forced to stay in the White House, abandoning the rallies he has employed to try to galvanize his support base.
Trump’s diagnosis and its timing are a brutally ironic coda in an election seen by some as a referendum on his chaotic handling of coronavirus, which has claimed 207,000 US lives and infected 7 million people.
Even in the hours before he tested positive for the virus, Trump, as he has often done, claimed without evidence that the pandemic would subside soon. “I just want to say that the end of the pandemic is in sight,” he said in prerecorded remarks.
Prior to the announcement, Trump was last seen by reporters returning to the White House on Thursday evening and did not appear visibly ill.
Hicks, who accompanied Trump and members of his family to the presidential debate on Tuesday and to a Minnesota rally on Wednesday, fell ill during a flight home on Air Force One on Wednesday evening and was isolated from other passengers onboard the plane.
Trump has in recent days met a number of prominent figures, some of whom are in high-risk categories for coronavirus complications, including Biden, whom he faced, unmasked, during Tuesday’s debate, and the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell.
He said he received confirmation of the positive tests on Thursday evening. Earlier, Trump confirmed in an interview with Sean Hannity of Fox News that Hicks had contracted the virus.
“She tested positive,” Trump said, adding that he and Melania had taken coronavirus diagnostic tests. “I just went for a test and we’ll see what happens,” he told Hannity. “I spend a lot of time with Hope,” he added.
World leaders and officials were quick to weigh in with sympathy and – in the case of China – something approaching schadenfreude.
Hu Xijin, the outspoken editor of the state-owned Chinese Global Times newspaper, tweeted in English that Trump and the first lady had paid the price for his gamble to play down the pandemic.
Boris Johnson, who himself contracted coronavirus, tweeted on Friday morning: “My best wishes to President Trump and the First Lady. Hope they both have a speedy recovery from coronavirus.”
The Tokyo governor, Yuriko Koike, speaking at a weekly news conference, did not mention Trump’s reluctance to wear masks when asked about his infection, but said the news reminded him of how widely masks are worn in Japan.
If Trump becomes severely ill, he could temporarily transfer power to the vice-president, Mike Pence, under the 25th amendment of the US constitution. If both Trump and Pence are incapacitated, the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, would be next in the line of succession.
It is unusual for Covid-19 patients to receive a positive PCR test result one day after exposure, public health experts say, and Trump may have been carrying the virus for longer – exposing those he interacted with this week.
News of the White House outbreak has intensified criticism of the administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, and the president’s disregard for public officials’ recommendations.
Trump routinely eschews face masks and has recently been holding large rallies crowded with unmasked supporters. Many of the large events have been outdoors, where the virus is less likely to be transmitted, but he has also hosted indoor events in Arizona and Nevada. A public health official in Tulsa has linked a Trump rally there with an increase in Covid-19 cases.
With 33 days remaining until the election, Trump’s diagnosis means he will have to withdraw from the campaign trail. If he develops serious symptoms, the president will have to explain why he continually downplayed the severity of the pandemic and pushed communities to reopen schools and businesses over the concerns of epidemiologists.
Hicks is not the only White House staffer in contact with Trump to have contracted the virus. Katie Miller, the vice-president’s press secretary, who is married to Trump’s adviser Stephen Miller, has recovered from Covid-19. One of Trump’s personal valets also tested positive for coronavirus, in May.
Herman Cain, a Trump ally and campaign surrogate, died from coronavirus in July after attending a rally in Tulsa.