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How Donald Trump’s Covid diagnosis will reshape US election campaign

Trump's illness is expected to have a significant impact on the White House staff and could also hamstring his ability to raise cash for the final weeks of the campaign.

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Washington: Donald Trump’s Covid-19 diagnosis has dramatically altered the closing weeks of the U.S. presidential campaign, with the president now facing not only an unprecedented health challenge but also logistical and staffing chaos about a month before Election Day.

Trump’s illness prompted the White House to cancel political events on Friday, including a rally planned outside Orlando, Florida. Campaign and fundraising trips planned for the coming days — including visits to key battlegrounds including Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Nevada — are expected to be scrapped as the president remains quarantined at the White House.

Trump leans on his in-person political events to raise cash and create enthusiasm among supporters as he tries to make up ground against Democratic nominee Joe Biden, who leads in polls and fundraising in no small part due to the president’s response to the virus now afflicting him.

Trump had hoped to turn the focus of the final weeks of the campaign away from the pandemic and toward his Supreme Court nominee, the economic recovery and civil unrest — issues where he believes he holds an advantage. But the lack of his signature rallies and the shift in focus away from the very issues that most excite his voters are likely to make it harder to close the gap with Biden, who has held a steady lead of about 7 percentage points in national polls for some time.

Now, the weeks ahead are sure to be dominated by constant discussion of Trump’s health, turning attention back to a pandemic most Americans think he’s mishandled.

His political concerns are only compounded by the immediate risk of the virus to Trump, a 74-year-old now fighting a disease that has killed more than 200,000 Americans since February. Even if the president remains asymptomatic, he’ll be challenged to keep both the public and financial markets calm as he tries to wage his come-from-behind campaign while sequestered in the White House residence.

U.S. stock futures were down about 1% early Friday after Trump said he and his wife had tested positive. The announcement came hours after a Bloomberg News report that Hope Hicks, one of the president’s closest aides, had fallen ill with the virus.

The implications of the president’s diagnosis are also likely to impact his Democratic challenger, beyond inserting a major new variable into an already unpredictable campaign.

Biden will need to decide whether he too should quarantine, after sharing a debate stage with the president just 72 hours before his positive test. While Biden’s campaign didn’t immediately comment on Trump’s infection, they have said Biden is tested regularly and that they would announce if he contracted the virus.

The former vice president is scheduled to travel to Grand Rapids, Michigan, on Friday to deliver remarks on his economic agenda and then participate in a voter mobilization event. His campaign didn’t respond to a question about whether that trip is still on.

Even if Biden and his team avoided exposure at the first debate, they face the challenge of navigating the historic development as voters across the nation begin to cast ballots. The Democratic nominee will need to strike the right tone, making sure not to appear to revel in his opponent’s illness while continuing to assail the president’s attitude and policies toward the virus.

In the past, presidents have seen their poll numbers improve in the aftermath of health scares, and the president may be rewarded if voters rally around him. President Ronald Reagan’s approval in the Washington Post-ABC News poll rose 11 percentage points after a failed assassination attempt in his first term.

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson — who battled the virus in April — saw a sharp increase in popularity after his diagnosis. More than half of Britons — 51% – said they had a favorable opinion of the prime minister in the day after his infection, up 17 points from the prior month, according to Ipsos MORI.

But voters may have a different outlook on Trump, who has flouted the advice of public health authorities. The president seldom wears a mask and he’s defiantly resumed holding large campaign rallies, even when state and local officials have implored him not to. In a Reuters poll released earlier this week, just 41% of voters said they approved of the way Trump was handling the pandemic.

And the president is likely to face criticism for his decision to travel Thursday to New Jersey for a fundraiser at his Bedminster golf course — despite Hicks testing positive for the virus and displaying symptoms aboard Air Force One the previous night. Despite that exposure, Trump pushed ahead with travel that saw him share enclosed spaces with key staffers.

During their debate, Biden and Trump sparred over precautions including mask-wearing during Tuesday’s debate, with the former vice president calling the president a “fool” and “totally irresponsible” for discouraging preventive measures. Trump responded by mocking his Democratic challenger for being too cautious.

“I don’t wear masks like him,” Trump said. “Every time you see him, he’s got a mask. He could be speaking 200 feet away from me, and he shows up with the biggest mask I’ve ever seen.”

Trump’s diagnosis could prove especially tricky because of the president’s public messaging about the virus. He has urged Americans to return to work and school, frequently downplaying the risk that any individual will get infected or die. If he and his wife are fortunate and experience no symptoms or mild illness, the president may be further emboldened.

Trump could also face a dilemma over whether to withdraw from the race if his health deteriorates. In 2016 after the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape, senior Republicans investigated the logistics involved replacing Trump with Mike Pence atop the ticket. But more than 30 states have already sent ballots to voters, with more kicking off early voting efforts in the coming days.

Trump’s physician said early Friday he expected “the president to continue carrying out his duties without disruption while recovering,” but the implications of the diagnosis are far-reaching.

It’s unclear but unlikely Trump that can participate in the second presidential debate, scheduled for Oct. 15. The president’s campaign didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment about its plans, but if Trump is forced to pull out of the debate, it could deprive him of one of his final opportunities to highlight his contrasts with Biden before a large television audience.

The president trails Biden by about 7.2 points nationally, according to a RealClearPolitics average of polls. Surveys conducted by television networks following the first, chaotic debate showed that voters viewed the Democrat as the winner.

The president’s diagnosis is also expected to have a significant impact on campaign and White House staff, who — if they follow existing federal health guidelines — may need to quarantine for the next two weeks.

The president, First Lady Melania Trump, and Hicks traveled with a large cadre of White House and campaign staff to the first presidential debate Tuesday night in Cleveland, with the president and Hicks also attending political events Wednesday in Minnesota.

Those spotted in the president’s company in recent days include campaign manager Bill Stepien, senior aides Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner and Stephen Miller, as well as top communications aides Jason Miller and Kayleigh McEnany.

“Contract tracing is being done and the appropriate notifications and recommendations will be made,” White House spokesman Judd Deere said.

The diagnosis may also hamstring Trump’s ability to raise cash for the final weeks of the campaign, even as Biden’s campaign set another fundraising record in September, surpassing the unprecedented $365 million it raised in August. Trump fell $154 million short of Biden in August, and his campaign has pulled back on television advertising in swing states even as the Democrat fills the airwaves.

Trump has tried to bridge that gap with high-dollar in-person fundraisers. His luncheon event Thursday in New Jersey raised $5 million, according to a Republican official. – Bloomberg

Also read: Trump infection could see a Covid outbreak in White House with large circle of aides at risk


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