How Trump’s Covid Hospitalization Has Changed the Election Campaign

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Joe Biden and Donald Trump face the challenge of finding the right tone for their campaigns as the president remains hospitalized with Covid-19 a month before the Nov. 3 election.

Because of Trump’s illness, each candidate now enters the final stretch of the campaign having to adjust messages that had become rote. For Biden, that means treading more carefully in assailing his ailing opponent’s response to a pandemic that cost 200,000 lives and millions of jobs. For Trump, that translates into acknowledging the peril of a virus he has repeatedly claimed would eventually disappear.

The former vice president made the first move. After testing negative for coronavirus early Friday, he continued with a planned stop in Michigan while Trump was resting at the White House. That left voters with the split-screen image Friday afternoon of Trump heading to a hospital at the very moment Biden was selling his economic plan to union workers in a crucial battleground state.

Yet Biden avoided seeming callous by bookending his remarks with well-wishes and prayers for Trump and his wife, Melania, who is also infected, before pivoting into his standard pleas for adherence to scientists’ guidelines for lessening the pandemic’s spread.

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Mostly gone were Biden’s regular digs at Trump for mishandling the virus that also collapsed a strong economy, and his routine remarks that Trump’s policies directly led to deaths and unemployment.

“We need to do better in dealing with this pandemic,” was as sharp a rebuke as Biden offered Friday. “This is not a matter of politics,” he said. “It is a bracing reminder for all of us that we must take this virus seriously. It is not going away.”

It remains unclear whether Trump’s infection will fundamentally change the race. For months, Biden has held a steady lead over the president in national polls and only a tiny fraction of the electorate remains undecided. Most immediately, the test result will pull Trump and his closest family members off the campaign trail, as his team has canceled future events. Vice President Mike Pence will still hold events, the campaign said.

Trump’s re-election effort had a different messaging problem, one compounded by campaign manager Bill Stepien testing positive for Covid-19. After seven months of minimizing the virus, disdaining masks or social distancing, and promising the disease would “magically disappear,” the White House itself was now possibly spreading it. Trump’s trusted aide Hope Hicks fell ill Wednesday and Trump was tested and diagnosed late Thursday.

And while Biden spent the first months of the pandemic campaigning from his home, drawing derision from Trump for “hiding in his basement,” Trump was now the one locked down, unable to do the signature rallies that connect him to his base of loyal supporters.

The mood both in the White House and the campaign was bleak, according to four people familiar with the situation, and they said the outlook, after months of trailing Biden in national and many state polls, was that they may not come back politically.

One aide expressed disappointment privately that Trump didn’t quarantine as soon as Hicks was diagnosed. Instead, Trump held a fundraiser at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, angering one of his top donors.

Dan Eberhart, who donated $100,000 to Trump’s re-election in June, said in a phone interview Friday that the president was “reckless” and imperils much-needed future fundraisers in the short time that remained. Trump should have sent a surrogate instead, said Eberhart, the chief executive officer of Canary Drilling Services LLC.

Doug Heye, a Republican strategist, said Biden struck the right tone in responding to Trump’s diagnosis.

“There’s so much negativity out there on this,” he said. “It’s smart of Biden to stay above the fray.”

The sudden change also throws into question whether Trump and Biden will participate in the next debate, which is scheduled for Oct. 15 in Miami. Public health guidelines recommend that people who contract coronavirus should isolate for at least 14 days, and Trump was diagnosed 12 days before the next face-off.

Trump was transported to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Friday afternoon, where he is expected to stay for a few days. Trump’s diagnosis also comes after he mocked Biden during the debate for always wearing a mask, saying: “I don’t wear a mask like him. Every time you see him, he’s got a mask. He could be speaking 200 feet away from them, and he shows up with the biggest mask I’ve ever seen.”

Trump’s positive test result couldn’t have come at a worse time for his campaign. Not only lagging in the polls, Trump is having trouble raising money and the New York Times reported on Sunday that he had paid only $750 in federal taxes in 2016 and 2017. The chaotic and combative debate on Tuesday night, in which Trump incessantly interrupted Biden and moderator Chris Wallace, was widely seen as a disaster for the president.

Until Labor Day, Biden kept a very limited public schedule, only holding small, socially distant events in Delaware or Pennsylvania and unless delivering a speech from a distance, the former vice president has always worn a mask. His campaign created a public health advisory board, led by David Kessler, the former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, and Vivek Murthy, the former surgeon general, to advise on the safety of campaigning.

And now, after one encounter with the president, Biden may not be out of the woods. His negative Covid-19 test is not conclusive, as health experts say it could take days for him to develop enough of the virus for a test to detect it if he did in fact contract it.

The Democratic nominee is not slated to travel again until Monday, when he is scheduled to campaign in Miami and participate in a town hall hosted by NBC News. Later in the week, he is planning to fly to Arizona to campaign with his running mate, Kamala Harris, after she participates in the vice-presidential debate on Wednesday night.

— With assistance by Misyrlena Egkolfopoulou, and Saleha Mohsin

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