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Election Season Upended: Trump’s COVID Diagnosis Could Reshape Race, Debates & SCOTUS Fight

StoryOctober 02, 2020
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President Donald Trump has tested positive for COVID-19, throwing the final month of an already unprecedented election season into disarray. What will this latest news mean for the debates and the Supreme Court? And what will happen if President Trump is unable to lead the country? We speak to journalist John Nichols about the line of succession, campaigning in the critical swing state of Wisconsin, and more. We also speak with Naomi Klein, senior correspondent at The Intercept and a professor at Rutgers University.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined by John Nichols. Naomi is speaking to us from British Columbia. John Nichols is speaking to us from Wisconsin. The front-page piece in The New York Times today, because when they put out their print edition, didn’t know about the latest announcement President Trump and the first lady have COVID, it’s ”COVID and Campaigns Collide in Battleground of Wisconsin.” So, John, we’re talking to you in Wisconsin, where, the Times writes, “Three of the four metro areas in the United States with the most cases per capita were in northeast Wisconsin, and one hospital in Green Bay, the third-largest city in the state, was nearly full this week … Daily statewide deaths because of the coronavirus hit a record on Wednesday when officials reported that 26 people had succumbed to the virus.” And it goes on from there. That didn’t stop President Trump from going to Wisconsin, but what did stop him is he, himself, and the first lady getting sick, and now at least one staffer, if not more, testing positive for COVID-19. Your thoughts?

JOHN NICHOLS: It has been a remarkable last 24 hours in Wisconsin. While what has happened with the president is of course the lead news now, over the last 24 hours you had a circumstance in Wisconsin where the mayor of the city of La Crosse was pleading with the president and with the White House and with the campaign not to come to La Crosse. The campaign finally decided not to go there. They announced, well, then they would go to another city, Janesville. The officials in Janesville pleaded with the campaign not to come to Janesville.

And so, we had this remarkable playout in Wisconsin of a very serious uptick in coronavirus cases and in deaths, officials saying, “Look, this is not the time to come and campaign,” and yet, up until this diagnosis, full intent to try and come in. So, we really have seen the intersection of the campaign and the president’s denial of the seriousness of these events, of having these events without masks, without social distancing, come in to clash with reality at this point. I think it’s something every Wisconsinite is going to notice. There’s no doubt of that.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain 25th Amendment and also this line of succession? If President Trump were too sick to function as president, it goes to Vice President Pence, then to the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, then to Chuck Grassley in the Senate. The significance of this and what this means now?

JOHN NICHOLS: Well, I think that it’s important to understand that the president and the people around him say that he is not experiencing symptoms at this point and that he will continue to govern.

What we do know is that if he is incapacitated — that is to say, if he is physically in a situation where it is determined that he can’t govern, or he determines he can’t do so — it moves to Mike Pence. If Pence is incapacitated in some way, then it does move to Nancy Pelosi, and obviously to Grassley. That’s the standard system.

And it has come to this before. We have had circumstances in the past where presidents have been going into surgery, where President Reagan was shot, where the 25th Amendment came into play.

What I would emphasize, though, is I doubt very much that this president will want that to happen, and so even if he does have minor symptoms, I expect he will continue to try and govern.

What is significant, though, is the impact on campaigning is very, very significant, because if you follow the CDC protocols, President Trump can’t — just because of the diagnosis, shouldn’t go out for at least 10 days. And Joe Biden also, as someone who has come into contact with someone who has now been diagnosed, also has to follow CDC protocols. So, the whole campaign —

AMY GOODMAN: He’s testing this morning.

JOHN NICHOLS: Yeah, he is. But remember —

AMY GOODMAN: And they also — the Biden campaign put off a reporter on their plane to Michigan — we’ll see if he goes to Michigan — because he had been on Air Force One, where Hope Hicks was and the president was.

JOHN NICHOLS: Yeah. So this becomes — it becomes a really kind of turbulent moment in the last month of the campaign. You have the potential that as much as a third, even a half, of the last month of the campaign may be redefined by the ability of the candidates to physically go out and campaign.

We are now in this era of virtual campaigning, and so that becomes a factor. But one thing is, the president, particularly, has not wanted to do virtual campaigning. He’s been very,very committed to these in-person events. Biden has been much more inclined toward it.

The final thing that we have to keep conscious of is that we have a number of debates scheduled. And it is hard to imagine how those debates go forward in any kind of traditional model, although you could in fact start talking about the idea of virtual debates.

AMY GOODMAN: Which is very interesting, because next week is the vice-presidential debate, and Pence, while they’re saying he and Karen Pence have tested negative, has been in contact with COVID-positive people, like the president. And so the question is: Should that be held, certainly, in person? Then you’ve got the next two debates.

Naomi Klein, then you have the hearings, possibly — who knows if they will continue? — for the Supreme Court justice, Amy Coney Barrett, as she goes from one Republican senator’s office to another, with White House staffers, White House staffers going back and forth, who have been with President Trump numerous times. What this could mean? And the oldest member of the Senate is the second in command of the Judiciary Committee of the Senate, and that’s Dianne Feinstein. Will these hearings be put off? What about Amy Coney Barrett’s own family, who didn’t wear masks when President Trump introduced her last week?

NAOMI KLEIN: There’s been a huge amount of reckless endangerment, there’s no doubt. And I think that if we were following the proper protocols, the Senate would not be able to meet, and therefore, the confirmation would not be able to happen.

You know, I think we should be thinking also of the working people who have been exposed by this administration recklessly in the past few days — the drivers, the catering workers. So many people, without their consent, have been exposed. Just as in the country, think about the thousands of meat processing plant workers who were ordered to work under extremely unsafe conditions by this president, because he believed that bacon was an essential service. So, so many people have been endangered by his policies.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to end it there, and of course we’ll continue to cover this story, the Miami Herald reporting that Chris Wallace notes members of the first family waved off the offer of masks from members of the Cleveland Clinic once they sat down in the hall to watch the debate. That does it for the show. Naomi Klein, as well as John Nichols. I’m Amy Goodman.

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