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What Trump’s Covid-19 diagnosis means for the debates

U.S. President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden participate in their first 2020 presidential campaign debate in Cleveland
Reuters/Brian Snyder
Trump may have had Covid-19 when this photo was taken.
  • Adam Epstein
By Adam Epstein

Entertainment reporter

Published Last updated

If you watched the chaotic first US presidential debate and hoped the remaining ones would get scrapped, you may be in luck. Donald Trump has the coronavirus, putting all his future campaign events—including the debates—in doubt.

Trump tweeted early this morning that he and first lady Melania Trump tested positive for Covid-19 and will begin quarantining immediately. Several other officials in Trump’s orbit have also tested positive, including Trump advisor Hope Hicks and Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel. Vice President Mike Pence tested negative.

Three days ago, Trump shared a stage with Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden in the first of three planned debates, during which the president incessantly interrupted and badgered his opponent, as well as the moderator, Fox News anchor Chris Wallace. Biden’s campaign said he will be tested today as a result of being near Trump.

The next presidential debate is supposed to be Oct. 15 in Miami, Florida. The final debate is schedule for Oct. 22 in Nashville, Tennessee. The one and only vice presidential debate between Pence and US senator Kamala Harris is marked for Oct. 7 in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Trump has downplayed the severity of the pandemic and made fun of people who wear masks. As he isolates in the White House with what the New York Times reports are “mild” cold-like symptoms, the Commission on Presidential Debates is surely making contingency plans. Here are its options:

Option #1: Cancel the debates

Even if Trump’s case of Covid-19 remains mild, he will still have to isolate for two weeks, assuming he follows US health guidelines, which is not a guarantee. That would mean he can’t even leave the White House until mid to late October—putting not only the Oct. 15 debate out of the question but also making the Oct. 22 debate dubious as well.

Given Trump’s age and weight, he’s at real risk of developing serious illness and requiring hospitalization. The easiest option now would be to just cancel the remaining debates. And given the fallout from the first one, that may be the option both campaigns prefer anyway.

Option #2: Postpone the debates

The Commission could try to salvage the debates by postponing them later into October, after the president has recovered. But that would be a logistical nightmare and extremely difficult to pull off on short notice. There is some wiggle room built into the schedule—the Oct. 15 debate could theoretically move to Oct. 22, while the Oct. 22 debate could move to Oct. 29—but it seems unlikely this could be done in a way that satisfies both campaigns (as well as the host sites). Or they could simply cancel the Oct. 15 debate and hold just one more, instead of two.

Option #3: Hold the debates virtually

If Trump is feeling well enough, he could video conference into the debate. Why not? The rest of us have been doing it on Zoom every day for months. It’s the best way to still hold a debate without further putting anyone at risk. And the moderator could mute Trump’s microphone whenever he wants. This, however, would also be a logistical challenge in its own right, and we doubt the Trump campaign would agree to it.

Option #4: Go on as planned

Perhaps Trump leaves his quarantine prior to Oct. 15, tests negative, and the debates can go on as scheduled. Or maybe the Oct. 15 is postponed by just a day or two, while the Oct. 22 debate stays as is. It’s possible, but highly unlikely.

Another option is Trump wants to salvage what’s left of the debates, but Biden, seeing his lead in the polls and the carelessness of his opponent, decides not to push the issue and opts out. The 77-year-old former US vice president may not want to risk getting sick in the final days of the campaign—one in which he has enjoyed a stable lead in the polls for months. Trump’s illness could provide reasonable cover to bow out.

What about the VP debate?

Both Pence and Harris have tested negative, so it’s possible their Oct. 7 debate goes on as scheduled. But it could also be canceled out of an abundance of caution. The last thing the Republican party wants is for both Trump and Pence to be incapacitated, handing US leadership over to Democratic Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi.

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