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Trump Has COVID-19. How Will It Affect the Campaign?

Donald and Melania Trump have both tested positive for the coronavirus, adding a jolt to the final month of the U.S. election campaign.

U.S. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump arrive on the South Lawn of the White House after a trip to Baltimore, Maryland on May 25.
U.S. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump arrive on the South Lawn of the White House after a trip to Baltimore, Maryland on May 25. Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: U.S. President Donald Trump has tested positive for COVID-19, European countries impose new coronavirus restrictions, Azerbaijan demands that Armenia withdraw from Nagorno-Karabakh, and Israel and Lebanon are due to meet for the first time in decades.

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Will Trump’s Coronavirus Infection Impact the Campaign?

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: U.S. President Donald Trump has tested positive for COVID-19, European countries impose new coronavirus restrictions, Azerbaijan demands that Armenia withdraw from Nagorno-Karabakh, and Israel and Lebanon are due to meet for the first time in decades.

If you would like to receive Morning Brief in your inbox every weekday, please sign up here.

Will Trump’s Coronavirus Infection Impact the Campaign?

Early on Friday morning, U.S. President Donald Trump announced that he and his wife, Melania Trump, had tested positive for the coronavirus. They were tested after learning that the White House advisor Hope Hicks—who spends a significant amount of time in the Oval Office and traveling with the president—had been infected. Trump said that he and the First Lady were both feeling fine and would immediately quarantine at the White House.

How long has the president been infected? The 1 a.m. announcement immediately prompted questions about the timing of Trump’s infection and whether others he has been in close contact with might have been exposed—including his rival, Joe Biden, who shared the stage with Trump at the presidential debate held on Tuesday night.

Hicks is a key member of Trump’s inner circle. She flew with Trump to Pennsylvania for a weekend rally and to Cleveland for the Tuesday debate. According to the Washington Post, Hicks has been in close proximity to the president and other top officials. She was photographed without a mask at the Pennsylvania rally with other Trump aides and in Cleveland disembarking from Air Force One. She tested positive after showing symptoms at a Wednesday rally in Minnesota and was reportedly quarantined on the plane going home.

After learning that Hicks had tell-tale symptoms of COVID-19, the president did not stop campaigning. “Trump and his entourage flew Thursday to New Jersey, where he attended a fundraiser at his golf club in Bedminster and delivered a speech. Trump was in close contact with dozens of other people, including campaign supporters, at a roundtable event,” according to the Post, and he reportedly did not wear a mask at the golf course event or on the plane.

Will it change the state of the race? The news of Trump’s infection could jolt the race just one month before the election, but much will depend on the severity of his illness. Given that Trump has repeatedly downplayed the dangers of the virus and shown hostility toward mask mandates—while pushing a message of economic optimism and reopening—his illness may have an impact on voters’ perceptions.

Trump has canceled his public schedule and promised to quarantine, a dramatic shift after months of mocking Biden for wearing a mask and reducing his campaign appearances due to safety concerns. As recently as Tuesday, when asked about his decision to hold large, crowded campaign events where most people don’t wear masks, the president was dismissive: “We’ve had no negative effect, and we’ve had 35 to 40,000 people at some of these rallies,” Trump said.

How serious a health risk does he face? Trump is not the first world leader to contract the coronavirus. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro was infected and recovered and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson ended up in an intensive care unit after contracting COVID-19 and eventually made a full recovery. But as the New York Times notes, it can be disruptive when a leader is sick and isolated. “Britain’s experience shows that even in a country with a well-organized political system, a leader’s sudden illness can be deeply unsettling. When Mr. Johnson contracted the virus in March, the government was adrift for several days while he struggled to keep leading the response to the pandemic, via Zoom calls, from isolation in his official residence on Downing Street,” the Times wrote.

Due to his age, Trump is in a higher-risk category than both Bolsonaro and Johnson. Barry Dixon, an intensive care physician at St Vincent’s hospital in Melbourne, Australia told the Guardian “He’s at a much higher risk of dying if he does develop that bad pneumonia … The key risk factors for Trump that we know about are his age and the fact he’s overweight, and they’d be high-risk factors.”

Mild symptoms soon after an infection are not a good indicator of how severe the disease will be; Johnson was healthy and working for the first few days after testing positive and then took a turn for the worse.“We tend to see people with very mild symptoms for the first week, that is typical, and in the second week typically people either develop pneumonia or not,” said Dixon. “It’s a quick deterioration, and that’s what we saw with  Boris Johnson.”

What if his condition worsens? If Trump is hospitalized or incapacitated, he could invoke the 25th amendment to the United States Constitution and temporarily transfer power to Vice President Mike Pence and assume power once healthy again. This has happened three times since the amendment came into force in 1967. President Ronald Reagan invoked it for eight hours in 1985 during a medical procedure and George W. Bush handed power to his vice president twice for approximately two hours while undergoing colonoscopies in 2002 and 2007. If a U.S. president dies in office, the vice president is sworn in as president.

What We’re Following Today

Europes second wave. The French government announced on Thursday that it’s prepared to implement a new set of restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of the coronavirus as early as Monday if a recent surge of new cases does not subside. Paris now has 263 new daily cases per 100,000 people, 105 new daily cases per 100,000 people over the age of 65, and an increase in the number of patients in intensive care units. This is part of a larger spike across the country over the previous few weeks.

France’s move is part of a wider effort by several other European countries to stop a second wave of the virus slamming the continent. Spain also ordered a partial lockdown in metropolitan Madrid as the area has accounted for more than a third of the country’s new cases over the past two weeks. The British government also expanded a local lockdown in northern England on Thursday.

There are some signs of progress, however. A report published by Imperial College London suggests that the United Kingdom’s rate of new infections is beginning to stabilize, a sign that the worst could be behind it. Still, some European leaders are bracing for a bad winter. On Tuesday during a press conference, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said “we know that a more difficult time is coming, fall and winter,” as she explained a new round of restrictions she was introducing.

Vatican snubs Pompeo. Pope Francis declined to meet with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during his visit to the Vatican on Thursday over concerns that doing so could drag him into the U.S. presidential election. “Yes, he asked [to meet with Francis,]” said Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state, “But the pope had already said clearly that political figures are not received in election periods. That is the reason.” Pompeo has been pressing the Vatican to condemn China’s human rights abuses, especially in Xinjiang province.

Despite not getting an audience with Francis, Pompeo still met with other senior Vatican officials, discussing religious freedom as well as their differences on China.

Withdrawal or nothing. Azerbaijan has raised the stakes in its ongoing clashes with Armenia, demanding that the country withdraw from the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh as a necessary condition to restoring peace. “We have only one condition,” said Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, “the Armenian armed forces must immediately and definitely leave our lands in full force. If the Armenian government complies with this condition, the fighting and bloodshed will stop.”

Fighting broke out on Sunday and quickly escalated, worrying governments across the world given the conflict’s potential to spark a wider regional confrontation. Russian President Vladimir Putin has asked France and the United States to join him in calls for a cease-fire. But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose country has strong cultural and military ties to Azerbaijan, called these efforts “unacceptable” and echoed Aliyev’s statement while pledging Turkey’s full support for its “brother country.”

Meanwhile, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and a commander of Turkish-backed rebels in Syria reported that Turkey has facilitated the transfer of hundreds of Syrian fighters from Syria to Azerbaijan; the Turkish government denies the allegation.

EU to sue Britain. The European Union announced on Thursday that it is taking legal action against the United Kingdom over the British government’s efforts to override parts of last year’s Brexit withdrawal agreement. Last month, the government introduced a bill to parliament that would allow it to ignore certain parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol, a mechanism designed to ensure peace and stability in Northern Ireland after Brexit. Shortly after the publication of the bill, Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis admitted that it “does break international law in a specific and limited way.”

The government now has one month to reply to a formal letter of complaint, after which the EU can formally sue the United Kingdom if it finds the response to be unsatisfactory.

Keep an Eye On 

Navalny blames Putin. Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny accused President Vladimir Putin of being responsible for poisoning him last month in his first public appearance since the attack. “Putin is behind the crime,” he said. “I have no other versions of the crime. I am not saying this to flatter myself, but on the basis of facts.” A Kremlin spokesman denounced the claims as “baseless and unacceptable,” and Moscow accused Navalny of working with the CIA.

Navalny, a prominent Putin critic, fell ill and entered a coma in August after campaigning for opposition figures near the Siberian city of Tomsk. He was subsequently flown to Berlin where doctors determined he had been poisoned by Novichok, a Soviet-era nerve agent that has been tied to the poisonings of Kremlin critics in the past.

Israel and Lebanon to meet. Officials from Israel and Lebanon are set to meet for the first time in 30 years to discuss their ongoing maritime border dispute, a key development that could settle one of the most contentious points of disagreement between them. The two countries have overlapping maritime claims in the eastern Mediterranean in addition to a heavily contested land border. Pompeo praised the move, tweeting that it “offers the potential for greater stability, security, and prosperity for citizens in both nations.” 

Odds and Ends 

The Irish Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that the bread used by the popular fast food sandwich chain Subway can no longer legally be classified as bread due to its high sugar content, saying it is closer to a “confectionary or fancy baked good.” The case emerged after a Subway franchisee insisted it shouldn’t have to pay a value-added tax on the bread because it is a staple food, which doesn’t require the payment of taxes in Ireland. The law, however, states that in order for a food to be considered a staple, sugar cannot exceed 2 percent of the weight of the flour. Subway’s bread contains 10 percent sugar.

That’s it for today. 

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Dan Haverty is a former editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @dan_haverty

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