Despite warnings from agencies like the CDC and the World Health Organization, President Donald Trump does not take basic precautions against the transmission of the coronavirus such as wearing a covering over his nose and mouth. Given Trump’s age and physical condition, this presents a scenario that involves a sitting president contracting a potentially deadly virus.
“The virus doesn’t care if you’re the president of the United States,” Center for American Progress managing director Katrina Mulligan told the Independent. “I think that’s a thing that warrants precaution.”
Not that it would necessarily come down to it—the 73-year-old Trump would receive only the best medical care, should he be exposed—but four U.S. presidents have also died from illness while in office (William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Warren Harding, and Frankin Roosevelt), and plenty of politicians around the world have already tested positive for the coronavirus.
Ann Keller, an associate professor of health politics and policy at the University of California at Berkeley, told Business Insider that “there are a lot of examples of heads of state needing medical care, getting it, sharing that information, and continuing on with their elected roles.”
However, Keller points out one discernible difference should Trump catch COVID-19.
“What I think might be different in this case is that in most cases where a head of state has been sick, they were not also in the middle of trying to lead their country through a crisis,” she continued. “That is an added complicating factor.”
The news could either undermine morale for the public or drive home exactly how serious the pandemic is for those who have been trying to downplay it.
“Along those lines, if a head of state got sick and recovered, that could help the public feel less fear around what might happen,” Keller said. “Of course, an infected head of state who did not recover could produce the opposite public response.”
Potential economic impacts
Should Trump contract the virus, markets wouldn’t just plunge. They would likely freeze, as the world waited to learn if he would relinquish power to Vice President Mike Pence should his condition continue to deteriorate. Another question is whether Trump would willingly relinquish that power, even temporarily. Given everything that we know about Trump’s personality and leadership style, he probably would not.
This also brings into question the subject of the 25th Amendment, which states that if a president becomes unable to perform the job, the vice president then becomes president. The 25th Amendment has been floated by Trump’s opponents on psychiatric grounds since he took office in 2017. However, if he should become ill with COVID-19, the amendment may have to be invoked on physiological grounds.
Any of these scenarios could further impact global stocks, which have already experienced a number of erratic highs and lows due to the impact the virus has had on policy and industries around the world. “Markets don’t like uncertainty,” Keller said. “So if a head of state is sick and not able to perform her or his duties, that could create a lot of uncertainty.”
The dangers presented by conspiracists
Given that Trump has been downplaying the seriousness of COVID-19 since the very beginning—even amid economic downturns and skyrocketing cases—many of his supporters still believe that the mainstream media is blowing the pandemic out of proportion, while others flat-out believe that it’s fake. Should Trump catch the virus, there is enough anecdotal evidence that suggests his supporters may believe that the president was targeted. Or, even worse, they may look for a scapegoat.
“This is the same America, frankly, that believed Hillary Clinton was running some sort of sex ring out of a pizza parlour in [Washington] D.C. Crazier things have happened,” Mulligan said. “This is one of those areas where gaslighting has consequences.”
What would happen if Trump contracts the virus and dies from it?
Complicating matters is that this pandemic has struck in an election year. Under normal circumstances, when a president becomes incapacitated, dies, resigns, or is removed from office, the vice president steps into that role. And should Trump win the 2020 election but die before the 2021 inauguration, Pence would become president.
However, should Trump succumb to the disease before the Republican National Convention in August, there would have to be a nominating convention, which would give delegates the opportunity to vote against Pence becoming the succeeding candidate.
Though it would be an unlikely scenario in which Pence would not be the obvious successor, delegates would be free to nominate whoever the party majority prefers.
On the other hand, if Trump were to die from the disease after the convention but before the presidential election, the party would not be able to host another round of primaries in such a short time. In any case, the decision would ultimately still rest with the Republican National Committee.