Credit: White House Photo by Tia Dufour

Now what?

The stunning news came in the early hours of Friday morning: The President of the United States and the First Lady had tested positive for the coronavirus. 

Here are questions that should, but probably won’t be answered in the coming days and weeks.

How could this have happened? Given the president’s cavalier attitude towards masks, a posture adopted by his staff and family, it was probably inevitable this would happen. Despite the aggressive testing of anyone who meets with the commander in chief, no regimen is perfect. Hope Hicks, a top aide to the president, reportedly tested negative on Wednesday but felt symptoms that night and was tested on Thursday and proved positive. Why then did the president travel on Thursday when he surely would have known about Hicks being positive and recognized that he might be too? We don’t know if Hicks infected Trump. We do know there was reason for the president to cancel his travel on Thursday including to a fundraiser in New Jersey where he seemed sluggish. Did Trump spread COVID? We should know and find out the status of those he met with on Thursday. Anonymize the data but let us know if COVID was spread. One can’t totally rule out espionage as the source of Hicks’s or Trump’s COVID although it’s far fetched. We know Vladimir Putin’s government has worked hard to keep Trump in office but it’s not impossible for a foreign government, say Iran, to find a way to infect a Trump aide.

But will there be an investigation? There should be but it would take an act of Congress or the White House initiating one with subpoena power. It’s unlikely. But it should happen. Consider the stakes: Eight American presidents have died in office, four from assassination, and four from illness. Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley, and John F. Kennedy were felled by assassins’ bullets while William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Warren Harding, and Franklin D. Roosevelt died in office for medical reasons ranging from pneumonia to a cerebral hemorrhage. For the sake of humanity and the president himself, let’s hope that Trump isn’t the ninth. It’s unlikely. With the best medical care and the odds in his favor, even as an overweight septuagenarian in his 70s,  Trump should be okay. On “CBS This Morning”, Dr. John LaPook, CBS News Chief Medical Correspondent, said the odds are overwhelming that Trump won’t need hospitalization. For now, he has cold symptoms and is in quarantine. It’s not Woodrow Wilson’s stroke. But we must find out how a pandemic breached the White House. As of Friday morning, Mike Pence is reportedly testing negative. But what about the National Security Advisor who has tested positive once before? The Chief of Staff? To the degree medical forensics can tell us what happened, we have to know more. We know mask-wearing in the White House was more common a few weeks ago and has dissipated. Would we have known any of this had Hicks’s positive test not been broken by Bloomberg News?

Could Trump be faking it?  Unlikely. A hoax would require the cooperation of the White House Medical Unit and a tremendous number of other staff. Besides, there’s no clear political gain or loss to be had from such deceit. No one should take anything the president says at face value but in this case, cynicism shouldn’t lead to paranoia.

Did Hicks infect the President and First Lady?  We have no idea. The report that Hicks had tested positive emerged just hours before the Trumps announced that they too were testing positive. But that’s a correlation, not causation. It could have come from others in the president’s purview. That’s why we need a real investigation and aggressive contact tracing.

Did the president endanger others, perhaps criminally, by traveling and having contact with others? Certainly, the president’s ambivalent attitude towards masks and his the-disease-will-go-away attitude have contributed to the pandemic. And the administration’s response to halting the virus’s spread has been shameful. Was Trump himself a spreader on Thursday? We don’t know. Criminal negligence seems highly unlikely.

What if Trump gets really sick or even, heaven forbid, dies?  We’ll probably know soon how severe the case is. And we should keep in mind that the president of Brazil and the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom have survived testing positive. Trump is very likely to recover. Suppose he isn’t? If Trump is incapacitated by a severe case of COVID-19 the Constitution allows for a voluntary, temporary transfer of power to Vice President Pence under the 25th Amendment. A more complex set of procedures follows if the Vice President and Cabinet decide that the president is unfit for office. This push-him-out-of-office strategy is a staple of political thrillers, yes, but something this supine cabinet never considered during the last tumultuous four years, and doubtfully would now.  

What happens to the next debate? If Trump is quarantined for two weeks, he’s unlikely to make the one on October 15 but he just might depending on how you count the days. No announcement has been made.

What’s the big takeaway from this? The White House needs a formal protocol for how to operate during a pandemic. The Trump administration ignored the good plans left for them by the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations for managing a global outbreak. Now the White House needs a plan for its 19 acres. The White House is paying the price for ignoring common sense at home.

Matthew Cooper

Follow Matthew on Twitter @mattizcoop. Matthew Cooper is Executive Editor Digital at the Washington Monthly. He is also a contributing editor of the magazine and a veteran reporter who has covered politics and the White House for Time, The New Republic, Washingtonian, National Journal and many other publications.