Analysis: Trump’s Covid diagnosis throws campaign and his message off balance

White House says president is exhibiting mild symptoms of disease he has long sought to downplay

U.S. President Donald Trump approaches reporters as he departs on campaign travel to Minnesota from the South Lawn at the White House in Washington, U.S., September 30, 2020. Picture taken September 30, 2020. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Donald Trump's announcement on Friday that he and first lady Melania Trump tested positive for Covid-19 upends his campaign and throws the president's message off-balance just 32 days from the election.

A health catastrophe this close to voting day on November 3 is uncommon in modern US presidential elections. And for Mr Trump, who built his image around strength and downplaying the pandemic, his diagnosis is even more damaging.

On Thursday, just hours before he tested positive, Mr Trump taped a video message promising the end of the pandemic. “I just want to say that the end of the pandemic is in sight and next year will be one of the greatest years in the history of our country,” Mr Trump said in a message to the Alfred Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner.

Throughout the week, Mr Trump was seen mask-less while taking photos with his supporters – at his golf course in New Jersey on Thursday, at a rally in Minnesota on Wednesday, and mocking his opponent Joe Biden for wearing a mask during the first presidential debate on Tuesday. “I don’t wear masks 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,” Mr Trump said.

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Trump associates who have had the virus 

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The White House said the  74-year-old president was exhibiting “mild symptoms” of the virus but was still working. Both Vice President Mike Pence and his wife Karen tested negative for Covid-19, officials said. Democratic nominee Joe Biden announced that he would get tested on Friday.

News of his infection is bound to exacerbate Mr Trump's campaign troubles. The president admitted privately to author Bob Woodward that he liked to play down the virus, while realising that it was far “more deadly” than the flu. Publicly, he told voters that “like a miracle, it [Covid-19] will disappear”.

The president's Covid-19 diagnosis turns back attention to the pandemic, something that his campaign has tried to avoid and change in the final stretch. In poll after poll, Mr Biden leads by double digits on who voters trust more to deal with the coronavirus, and has been himself more rigorous in following social-distancing guidelines. The shifting of conversation from the Supreme Court nomination of Amy Barrett to Mr Trump’s health crisis and a surge in Covid-19 cases, it helps the Democratic nominee.

In the best-case scenario and if he makes a full recovery, Mr Trump will not be able to hit the campaign trail before mid October, when his quarantine ends. This will shrink his exposure and camera time, something that Mr Trump thrives on. It could also hurt his polling in states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio that Mr Biden is visiting this week.

Mr Trump and Mr Biden are not due to face off in another debate until October 15, but that is also contingent now on the president’s health.

The coronavirus infection could not have come at a worse time for the US president. It puts him at a disadvantage in both messaging and campaigning while adding more turbulence to the White House operations.

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