The Dangerous Foreign-Policy Fallout of Trump’s COVID-19 Diagnosis

The four ways the president’s illness can complicate national security decision-making—or invite foreign attacks.

President Donald Trump gestures while speaking about mask wearing during a press conference in the Brady Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, DC on Sept. 16, 2020.
President Donald Trump gestures while speaking about mask wearing during a press conference in the Brady Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, DC on Sept. 16, 2020. MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

Nobody can pretend to know how President Donald Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis will unfold, but some fallout for U.S. national security will be impossible to avoid. What sort of distortions will the illness introduce to foreign policy? That’s harder to say. The Trump administration, after all, has had no baseline of normalcy from which to estimate such deviations. Nevertheless, four potential issues stand out.

First, and most consequentially, Trump could change his mind about the seriousness of the virus—as other infected political leaders have—and work closely with Democrats to mitigate COVID-19’s multiple harms. With the virus representing the most acute and lethal threat facing Americans, reducing its cumulative impacts should be the top national security concern for the commander in chief. Moreover, the interventions required to reduce those immediate and long-term harms have been well known and could be adapted quickly if the president expended the requisite political capital. In a video tweeted from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Trump even revealed he “learned a lot about COVID.” He added: “I get it. And I understand it. And it’s a very interesting thing.”

Unfortunately, as noted in a previous column, Trump is wholly incapable of updating any opinion once it has been expressed publicly. In the days leading up to his COVID-19 announcement, he again minimized the virus’s death rate based on his “hunch,” compared it to the regular flu, and mocked Joe Biden for wearing a mask. Worse than Trump’s inability to update his thinking, his immovable poor judgments anchor the collective beliefs of his party and loyalist followers. Thus, the president will never take COVID-19 seriously, and the federal government’s lack of urgency and overall incompetency will persist.

Second, if the president exhibits mild symptoms, but especially if he experiences a downturn comparable to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Trump’s illness could hinder his foreign-policy decision-making. Pharmaceutical treatments, fatigue, and elevated stress impair people’s cognition and alters how they make and communicate decisions. Trump’s most immediate and observable foreign-policy tool is kinetic military force. He has authorized (and often escalated) airstrikes in every country his predecessor Barack Obama bombed and was most enthusiastic about the filmed and well-publicized missile strikes against Syrian government assets in April 2017 and 2018.

Hence, Trump could approve some vivid but also escalatory military action, assuming that it would distract attention from his illness or demonstrate his pseudo-toughness. And given his practice of tweeting classified spy satellite photos without any opposition from Republicans, one would assume that near-term strikes would be accompanied by graphic imagery of death and destruction. Until now, despite his approval for more overall airstrikes than his predecessor in the ongoing wars in Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, and Somalia, Trump has yet to authorize any massive new military attacks. Even though, since taking office, he has made eliminationist threats against North Korea, Afghanistan, Turkey, and Iran and repeatedly claimed (falsely) that U.S. forces were executing the war crime of “taking the oil” from Syria and Iraq. But a medically impaired president could change course and suddenly authorize any number of extreme and unwise wars.

Third, there is some possibility that adversaries could perceive Trump’s illness as a window of opportunity, during which time they could advance their agendas without fear of imminent retribution. This scenario is improbable for the simple reason that U.S. foreign policy has already been tremendously distracted and diminished throughout Trump’s presidency. The administration has failed to execute any truly meaningful bilateral economic or diplomatic agreements, abandoned its traditional leadership role (to China) within international organizations, and largely disengaged from its allies—which has made the pursuit of shared global objectives impossible. In short, America has quickly become a lazy superpower.

Adversaries of the United States have learned that they can pursue their international goals incrementally without much pushback from Washington. There is no reason for those adversaries to cross any perceived red lines with a triggering incident—for example, China imposing a blockade on Taiwan—that would wake up America’s somnolent foreign-policy apparatus.

Fourth, the Trump administration’s already microscopic reputation for honesty has fallen further, with its buffet of lies and contradictions concerning COVID-19. Lying to successfully deceive is a skill that requires practice and refinement. The Trump White House has lied so long and so unsuccessfully without any penalty that its deception skills have atrophied beyond recovery. Understandably, and to an extent greater than any previous president, nobody could trust any statements produced by the White House. If the Trump administration cannot tell a true, plausible story about the health of its own workforce, who would believe it during an acute national security crisis?

For example, imagine a crisis characterized by deep uncertainty and requiring a presidential response in a compressed timeframe: mass hostage-taking by unknown assailants at a diplomatic facility or a devastating cyberattack against critical infrastructure that results in American deaths and can only be attributed with moderate confidence. During such events, multiple audiences look to the White House—diplomats and military forces for broad guidance and specific orders, Congress for factual oversight briefings, allies for appeals for support, and the American people for clarity and leadership. During the remaining weeks of the presidential campaign, and certainly after Nov. 3 if Biden wins the election, few would believe anything uttered by Trump or anyone who works for him.

Of course, it did not have to be this way. The president could have protected his health and the health of those working for him, he could have led the country competently when the virus first emerged, and his administration could have participated in world affairs beyond just extending existing bombing campaigns. But Trump and everyone who works for him are who they are—self-interested, above all. Nobody should expect them to change, no matter how severe the president’s COVID-19 infection turns out to be.

Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.

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