The Time Trump Almost Gave Biden COVID

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Getty Images

Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign and his four years in office contained so much daily weirdness, wackiness, and horror that the human brain couldn’t comprehend it all. As Trump gets close to the White House again, “That Happened brings you the surreal moments you might have forgotten — or blocked from your memory.

The first debate of the 2020 presidential cycle is probably best remembered for Donald Trump’s bizarro — even for him — performance. The former president spent much of the evening interrupting and talking over both Joe Biden and beleaguered moderator Chris Wallace, rendering the event a farce (and paving the way for the conditions CNN insisted on in this week’s debate, like the ability to mute candidates). Biden spoke for much of the viewing audience when he turned to Trump and pleaded, “Will you shut up, man?

What may be less often remembered is that as Trump spat out his Hunter Biden insults and told the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by,” he was also expelling coronavirus particles into the air — and that he knew full well he could have infected his opponent, who stood 13 feet away, at any time.

The debate took place at Case Western Reserve in Cleveland on September 29, several weeks before any COVID-19 vaccine became available. The conditions reflected that precarious moment: Only 300 audience members were allowed at the event, and the Cleveland Clinic, which partnered with Case Western Reserve on the debate, instituted safety measures including social distancing, masking, and proof that candidates and their entourages had tested negative for COVID.

Such protocols were obviously necessary. Three days earlier, the White House had held an event celebrating the unveiling of Trump’s Supreme Court pick Amy Coney Barrett. Guests at the event blithely mingled with one another indoors sans masks, the still-very-much-untamed pandemic be damned. The results were grotesquely predictable: The party was likely a superspreader event. Six days later, and three days after the debate, on October 2, Trump announced that he and First Lady Melania had tested positive for COVID, and a wave of Republican legislators and White House staffers who had attended the event also fell ill. And Trump did not have a mild case. He spent three nights at Walter Reed Hospital, receiving experimental therapies, and it later emerged that he was sicker than his staff let on. As he memorably put it at the time, “I could be one of the diers.”

For a while, it seemed that Trump had merely displayed callous indifference about his possible COVID status at the previous week’s debate. That indifference was perfectly in character, of course, for a man who repeatedly predicted that the virus would simply disappear and whose disastrous June rally in Tulsa had probably led to Herman Cain’s death.

But in 2021, the even-worse truth came out. A memoir released by Trump’s final chief of staff, Mark Meadows, revealed that Trump had tested positive for COVID days before the debate with Biden — and that Trump had probably contracted COVID earlier than anyone suspected. Unless Meadows was lying — which, knowing him, remains a distinct possibility — this casts Trump’s behavior around the debate in a far more disturbing light. Per The Guardian:

Meadows says Trump’s positive result on 26 September was a shock to a White House which had just staged a triumphant Rose Garden ceremony for the supreme court nominee Amy Coney Barrett – an occasion now widely considered to have been a Covid super-spreader event.

Despite the president looking “a little tired” and suspecting a “slight cold”, Meadows says he was “content” that Trump traveled that evening to a rally in Middletown, Pennsylvania.

But as Marine One lifted off, Meadows writes, the White House doctor called.

“Stop the president from leaving,” Meadows says Sean Conley told him. “He just tested positive for Covid.”

It wasn’t possible to stop Trump but when he called from Air Force One, his chief of staff gave him the news.

“Mr President,” Meadows said, “I’ve got some bad news. You’ve tested positive for Covid-19.”

Meadows wrote that Trump quickly took a second COVID test, this time with “the Binax system,” — as opposed to a supposedly outdated kit the first time around. The Binax test came back negative, which was good enough for Trump to pretend he had never heard about the positive result: He continued with his busy schedule, which included a meeting with military families and an indoor press conference.

Then it was off to the debate, where Trump & Co. appeared to exploit a slight loophole in the Cleveland Clinic’s rules: The campaigns were responsible for vetting the candidates’ negative tests, not debate organizers. That left it up to the famously trustworthy Trump campaign to promise — scout’s honor — that Trump was virus-free. As ABC News reported, the president’s advisers and family exhibited typically cautious COVID behavior:

Several members of the president’s family, along with White House and Trump campaign staff, were seen without masks in Cleveland ahead of the debate, and some took off their masks while seated watching the debate, violating protocol.

At one point, a doctor approached the Trump family and their guests to ask them to wear masks, but someone shook their head when she approached, according to a pool reporter traveling with the Biden campaign.

“That’s all you can do,” a debate staffer was overheard telling the doctor.

Biden’s team was displeased with this aggressively anti-social conduct (though it is unclear whether any of the unmasked actually knew Trump had tested positive). But there was nothing they could do but wait to see if their candidate fell ill, which he did not. If he had contracted COVID, he probably would have survived — he was a spring chicken of 77 at the time, after all, and in good health otherwise. But it would have kept him off the campaign trail during the last month of a close campaign, a time when Republicans regularly accused him of running for president from his basement. Instead, the second Biden-Trump debate was canceled, and the third one actually went a bit more smoothly than the first.

Like almost everyone else in America, Biden did end up getting COVID, but not until a year and a half after the vaccine era.

The stakes of Thursday night’s debate are extremely high for the candidates and for the country. But the chance that one candidate will physically harm the other through sheer recklessness seems meaningfully lower than it did four years ago. Whether you think that’s a good thing is another question.

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