The President stood triumphant on the White House balcony, having persuaded his doctors to submit to his will. He had spent his days at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center pushing them to let him out, medical advice be damned. Donald Trump tore off his mask and seemed to gasp for breath, but he would not be deterred from delivering his message.
“Don’t let it dominate; don’t let it take over your lives,” he said, biting off each word. No one must think the virus had defeated him.
His supporters reveled in his return. A Congressman crowed that Trump had beaten the virus just like he beat the Russia investigation and the Democrats’ impeachment. His press secretary–who announced her own case of COVID-19 earlier that day–hailed his ability to “stand strongly on the balcony!” A Senator tweeted a doctored video showing Trump at a wrestling match, punching a man with a coronavirus sphere for a head. The Republicans understand the way Trump likes to be praised; even facing a crisis with life-or-death stakes, they sensed what he wanted was not words of sympathy or compassion, but to be told he had kicked ass. A $100 “Trump Defeats COVID” souvenir coin was soon available for preorder from an unaffiliated White House gift shop.
It wasn’t clear that Trump has weathered the disease as well as he claimed. His doctors have given scant information and sidestepped questions about how long he might have had the virus. Medical experts questioned his hasty discharge, pointing out he’d been administered treatments normally reserved for serious cases. Trump had gone to the hospital grudgingly, then announced on Twitter he would be released in order to force the issue, according to two White House officials. “People look up to the President for answers,” says Chuck Hagel, the former Republican Senator and Defense Secretary, “and he supplies them with falsehoods that put their lives at risk.”
A President obsessed with strength and dominance could never stand to be revealed as a sick, vulnerable old man, a mortal made of flesh like the rest of us, ashes to ashes. There could never be a Wizard of Oz moment for Donald J. Trump, with his might-makes-right brand of politics. In recent weeks, he has bullied the Congress, his political opponent and the very machinery of democracy itself, all while mocking health precautions, practically daring the virus to infect him. He would sacrifice those around him, the country and even potentially his own health–anything it took not to appear weak.
When the President sneezes, America gets a cold. When the President gets COVID-19, America, too, must contemplate its frailty. His pathologies are our pathologies. Trump, like COVID, has scrambled our sense of national identity, with effects that will linger beyond Nov. 3. What have these past four years done to us–and what will it take to recover? Will we be humbled by weakness, or plunge forward in a state of dangerous denial?
One thing was clear as the President stood there: Trump had made his choice. (“He was huffing and puffing on the balcony like an American Mussolini,” said his disillusioned former communications director Anthony Scaramucci.) Let the losers carp about masks and viral loads. He will stand unbowed, a winner to the very end. He will not be saved from himself.
Many things are possible to the man who sees no obstacles; this is the strongman’s appeal, and it has been Trump’s MO for as long as anyone can remember. Other Presidents might have hesitated to ram a Supreme Court nomination through the Senate on the eve of an election and in the face of public opposition. Supreme Court confirmations normally take months, and many Republicans had previously argued that voters should have a say in such matters in an election year. The Senate still had yet to get around to debating legislation to boost the COVID-ravaged economy. Trump, man of action, ignored these quibbles.
The nominee, federal judge Amy Coney Barrett, was presented to the public on Saturday, Sept. 26, the day after Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg lay in state at the Capitol. In the sun-drenched White House Rose Garden, more than 100 mostly maskless guests hugged and chatted before taking their seats on tightly packed folding chairs. Afterward, they mingled at receptions indoors.
This is the way things have been at the White House since the beginning of the pandemic. To acknowledge or accommodate the virus was a weakness that invited ridicule. Trump grimaced when he saw aides wearing masks; he would say he couldn’t hear or understand masked officials when they spoke, current and former aides tell TIME. When Deputy National Security Adviser Matt Pottinger told colleagues he wore a face covering to protect a family member with a respiratory condition, he was informed it was “freaking people out” and he should stop doing so around the President.
On Sept. 29, Trump traveled to Cleveland to participate in the first general-election debate, pausing on the South Lawn to raise a fist at the cheering supporters gathered to see him off. After being seated in a Cleveland Clinic auditorium for the 90-minute debate, several members of the Trump family and Administration removed their masks in violation of the clinic’s rules, and rebuffed a clinic staffer who tried to offer them new ones. The candidates themselves were supposed to have been tested by their campaigns, but it’s unclear if Trump was.
The debate was a mess: Trump hectored and interrupted so relentlessly that the proceedings devolved into chaos. Invited to condemn a white-supremacist group, Trump instead told them to “stand by.” He refused to commit to accepting election results, insisting mail-in ballots would lead to a “rigged” result. He ridiculed Joe Biden’s mask wearing and charged that the Democrat was only holding small, socially distanced events “because nobody will show up.” Biden and moderator Chris Wallace both seemed dazed by the President’s aggression. And that was the point.
The day after, Trump traveled to Minnesota for a rally and indoor fundraiser. His longtime aide Hope Hicks felt ill, and sat apart from other passengers on Air Force One on the ride home. Undaunted, Trump went to his New Jersey golf club for a maskless, partially indoor fundraiser the following day. “The end of the pandemic is in sight,” he said in an address to a charity banquet. That night, Bloomberg News revealed Hicks had tested positive for COVID-19.
Although nobody admitted it until later, by that point Trump had already taken a rapid coronavirus test that returns results within 15 minutes–and tested positive. He called in to Sean Hannity’s Fox News show that night as he waited for the results of a more reliable PCR test, saying nothing about the initial positive result. Just before 1 a.m. on Friday, Oct. 2, Trump announced his and the First Lady’s diagnoses on Twitter.
More and more people who’d been around Trump began testing positive. A dozen guests at the Rose Garden event would announce they’d contracted the virus, including two Republican Senators, Trump confidants Kellyanne Conway and Chris Christie, and three members of the White House press office. By Oct. 6, the tally had grown to include another Senator, the chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, White House adviser Stephen Miller, Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien and a Coast Guard admiral who’d attended a reception in honor of military families.
Trump grew sick rapidly and was airlifted to the hospital the same day he announced his diagnosis. He was “fairly adamant that he didn’t need” the oxygen he was administered, said his physician, Navy Commander Sean Conley. Over the weekend, the White House released posed photos and videos of Trump attempting to look vigorous and focused on work while he received a combination of treatments normally reserved for severe COVID-19 cases and medical-trial subjects. The White House refused to say when Trump had last tested negative, and did not fully trace his contacts or cooperate with local public-health officials in the places the President had traveled. Conley offered vague, rosy descriptions of Trump’s condition. The American people might wish to know whether their President was gravely ill, but that would have to take a backseat to Trump’s insistence on playacting invulnerability.
All the while, the President is fighting for his political survival, and there, too, the news is not good, despite his protestations. In what is likely his last political campaign, he trails Biden steadily in the polls, by margins that seem to be widening. Trump has been unpopular since the day he took office, but it took his diagnosis and the ensuing chaos to make his mesmerized party register the political danger. “Even when the polls were ugly, he felt invincible to a lot of people,” says GOP lobbyist Liam Donovan. “Now they’re starting to come to grips with the fact that there’s no more time to turn things around. Reality is cracking the force field.”
For more than two years, Sarah Longwell, a “Never Trump” Republican operative, has been conducting focus groups with women in swing states who voted for Trump in 2016 but think he is doing a bad job as President. They are blue collar and white collar, young and old; most live in conservative communities. Since the pandemic hit, Longwell says, many of these women have stopped defending Trump. His bullying manner resonates with hardcore fans, but these women are put off by it–repulsed by his refusal to commit to a peaceful transfer of power, a Supreme Court push they see as hypocritical, his demeanor in the debate and online. Liberal women on Twitter often compare Trump to an abusive ex-husband, but these women “don’t see his behavior as threatening–they see it as dumb,” Longwell says. In the days after Trump’s diagnosis, national polls showed Biden expanding his lead to double digits, powered by a yawning gender gap. A CNN poll showed Trump winning male voters by 2 points but losing women by 34.
There are now more coronavirus cases connected to the White House outbreak than New Zealand has reported for the past week. The Rose Garden presentation of the President’s political Hail Mary–the court nominee who would galvanize women and conservatives and make everyone forget the virus–may have had the opposite effect. Trump himself is the single greatest source of false information about the election and COVID-19, according to separate studies by Cornell and Harvard. He is our national superspreader: of disinformation, of fear and division, of pure exhaustion.
But to Trump, science is just another biased Deep State lie, another loser to be bullied into submission. He could have done the responsible thing, but his ideology is strength. It is too soon to write the epitaph of the Trump presidency, but one day we may look back and see this as his ultimate weakness.
—With reporting by Abigail Abrams, Alana Abramson, Brian Bennett, Vera Bergengruen, Mariah Espada, W.J. Hennigan, Abby Vesoulis, Lissandra Villa and Julia Zorthian
Buy a print of TIME’s ‘Patient Zero’ cover here
This appears in the October 19, 2020 issue of TIME.
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