Will Trump’s Case of COVID-19 Endanger U.S. National Security?
Officials are warily watching for adversaries like Russia, Iran, and North Korea to exploit the moment.
Officials and veteran national security experts in the United States warn that President Donald Trump’s positive coronavirus test raises the specter of new aggressive moves from foreign adversaries and exposes the upper echelons of the U.S. government, including national security officials who surround Trump, to possible infection.
Administration officials insisted that Trump’s symptoms were mild, but on Friday afternoon the president was transported to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center to be hospitalized for several days, the White House announced. “President Trump remains in good spirits, has mild symptoms, and has been working throughout the day,” White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said in a statement.
President Vladimir Putin was among those world leaders to send get-well-soon telegrams to Pennsylvania Avenue. But Russia and adversaries like North Korea, China, and Iran are among the countries that administration officials and lawmakers will be watching closely to see if they exploit the news in Washington, particularly if Trump’s symptoms worsen.
“With the President’s illness amid a divisive campaign, we should not discount the possibility that China will step up pressure on Taiwan or Russia [will] seek to take advantage in Eastern Europe. Important [is] the U.S. signal to both that we are watching and remain fully capable,” Nicholas Burns, a former senior State Department official and foreign-policy advisor to Joe Biden’s campaign, said on Twitter.
Trump’s positive COVID-19 test—coupled with his age and weight, both high-risk factors—creates the potential for even more confusion in the weeks ahead for the U.S. security apparatus. Trump has dismantled or bypassed many of the normal systems and processes that keep Washington’s national security machinery in sync; for four years, senior officials at the Defense and State departments have been blindsided by Trump’s habit of announcing major foreign-policy decisions with little or no consultation.
“The whole way the U.S. government makes national security decisions was built because of infirm or injured presidents,” said John Gans, a former Pentagon official and author of White House Warriors: How the National Security Council Transformed the American Way of War. “The National Security Council was created because people were scared to death of the way Franklin Roosevelt made decisions during World War II while keeping information from everybody in government … and then he died and they were left in the dark.”
“The systems, the process, the meetings, and communications that were all created as a result of these fears of what could happen—Trump has let it all fall into disuse,” Gans said.
Trump’s positive test also presented Washington with stark conversations about lines of succession to the U.S. presidency—a discussion that is potentially jarring to both U.S. allies and adversaries alike.
Vice President Mike Pence, first in the line of succession, tested negative on Friday for the virus, according to Pence’s spokesperson. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, second in line, said in an interview on MSNBC that she had not been contacted by the White House but that plans for the continuity of government were in place. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, fourth in line, said both he and his wife had tested negative for the coronavirus while he is traveling in Europe. It’s likely that senior officials around Pence and Pompeo have recently come into contact with the president and his top aides, putting more people in the National Security Council and other agencies at risk of contagion.
Pompeo said his team was planning for that. “We’re measuring, trying to make sure we get some additional contact tracing on folks that have been to the White House,” he told reporters traveling with him.
Biden’s presidential campaign told reporters that the former vice president had tested negative for the virus. His running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, also tested negative. The campaign said it learned about Trump testing positive from news reports and didn’t get any heads-up from the White House or the Trump campaign.
Foreign intelligence services could also be monitoring a possible U.S. succession process, experts said. Coming amid another campaign rife with high-level warnings of Russian election interference, Moscow may also be looking to seize on U.S. uncertainty over Trump’s health to gain even greater leverage over Washington.
“They want to know what’s going to happen and how,” said Douglas London, a retired CIA officer who now teaches at Georgetown University. U.S. adversaries like Russia will be looking to see which members of the cabinet are likely to assert themselves if Trump is temporarily incapacitated with virus symptoms. “They want to know if there are going to be any differences in positions in power rivalries. Particularly for a country like Russia, they’re going to want to know what they can do to influence it,” London added.
But London said there’s a risk of miscalculation by foreign adversaries because the chain of command could become less predictable if Trump’s condition worsens. “They’re looking for where they might be able to seize the advantage,” he said. “There’s a lot of wild cards.”
But some former Trump administration officials said the chain of command is robust for precisely these types of contingencies, even if the president is incapacitated.
“The U.S. military has the best leadership of any military, and they are empowered to make the decision to protect the force if necessary,” said Mick Mulroy, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense during the Trump administration and now an ABC News national security analyst. “It is unlikely that any adversary would use this as an opportunity to test us. If they did, we would pass the test.”
Top U.S. lawmakers issued that same message on Friday shortly after Trump’s announcement. “Any adversary who views news of @POTUS testing positive as an opportunity to test the United States would be making a grave mistake,” tweeted Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, the acting chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper is in North Africa this week, but a spokesperson said the Pentagon chief tested negative for the virus, along with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, who met with Trump at the White House on Sunday.
“There has been no change to our alert levels,” a spokesperson for the Joint Chiefs said on Friday. “The U.S. military stands ready to defend our country and its citizens. There is no change to the readiness and capability of our armed forces.”
Update, Oct. 2, 2020: This article was updated to include information on Trump being transported to Walter Reed and comments from Sen. Marco Rubio.
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer
Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch