News National Donald Trump being positive – or not – the damage is done. Watch what happens next
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Donald Trump being positive – or not – the damage is done. Watch what happens next

US President Donald Trump released a video to reassure Americans he is improving despite conflicting reports about his health. Photo: Twitter
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First came shock. Then irony. Scepticism and fury. A little sympathy, but not much.

Now, it’s all uncertainty.

Donald Trump’s coronavirus diagnosis has rattled the presidential election campaign in a way without much precedent.

Practical and political questions suddenly need to be reframed. That task would be tough enough in less poisonous times, but in an era of “fake news” and “alternative facts,” it’s even more daunting.

The most pressing issue is the actual state of Mr Trump’s health.

Some Americans doubt he is sick, and think Mr Trump is making a play for sympathy, or biding his time before rebounding to strut his strength and invincibility.

Can we be surprised by this rickety, wacky political reasoning?

Mr Trump has governed by conspiracy and falsehood, and it’s now rife in the land. He’s demonstrated he would say or do anything in order to win a second term, no matter how dubious a tactic might seem.

When Ronald Reagan was rushed to a Washington hospital after being shot in 1981, he joked with his surgeons, calmed his wife and flirted with his nurses. And the White House – after a few stumbles – honestly shared information with the public.

Mr Trump would be well served to let his doctors speak freely and in detail about his condition. But he’s never been sold on candour.

Appearing in a hospital gown and slippers probably doesn’t strike him as a winning electoral strategy.

On Sunday, he was dressed in a suit and open-collar shirt in a short video in which he told the world he was “starting to feel good” and hoped to be “back soon”.

Apart from a noticeably more subdued demeanour, the main sign something was wrong was in the pallor of the President’s skin (chances are fake tan is not part of the hospital’s treatment plan).

“I have to be back because we still have to make America great again,” Trump said about his battle with “coronavirus … or whatever you want to call it”.

“I think I’ll be back soon.”

Assuming the President somehow emerges in public in time to resume campaigning, what could that look like? His rallies were already under attack for their absence of mask-wearing and social distancing.

If stories begin to emerge of ordinary people tracing their illness back to those rallies, the political damage would be devastating.

How do you elect a President who not only did nothing to keep you healthy, but actually contributed to getting you sick?

For now, the second presidential debate is up in the air, which is good news for both candidates.

For Mr Trump, because it’s one less place to ruin whatever sympathy he might get after his demonic performance in the first debate; For Mr Biden, because it’s one less place to appear less than prepared.

If Mr Trump does become gravely ill, he will engender some sympathy; instinctive humanity is not dead in the US.

And the electoral implications are not certain. Is it a given Americans will not vote for a sick man, one who they seemed to be rejecting even before his illness?

What if an ill but chastened Mr Trump adopted a Road-to-Damascus strategy, suddenly full of empathy and clarity about what needed to be done about COVID-19?

It’s probably beyond his emotional bandwidth, but there could be enough voters willing to forgive him to make things interesting in the last days of the campaign.

(And the campaign will end on November 3. While Congress has the power to move the date, it is inconceivable that a Democratic House and a Republican Senate could agree to do that.)

Barring such a conversion, where is the moment, between now and November 3, when Mr Trump’s candidacy is doomed?

Many Republicans might consider casting their lot behind his No.2 Mike Pence.

As a practical matter, there is no way to get Mr Pence’s name on the ballot (and many thousands have been voting already). But Republican leaders could instruct supporters to cast a vote for Mr Trump in name only, perhaps even eager to have a drama-free Mr Pence in place of the volatile Mr Trump. How to communicate that strategy would require exquisite political delicacy, to say the least.

Another Game of Thrones twist: It’s possible Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans would like to see Mr Trump sidelined and might try to keep him there.

Mr Trump is seen as a drag on the GOP ticket and a liability for Republican senators running for re-election in swing states.

If voters resign themselves to a Joe Biden presidency because of Mr Trump’s collapse, they might be less hostile to keeping a few GOP senators who might otherwise get swept out in a Trump-led rout.

As for Mr Biden, appearing sympathetic to Mr Trump and his family only solidifies his good-guy bona fides.

Balancing that with steady indictment of Mr Trump’s intemperance and incompetence should be easy enough, but this year has shown that nothing is a given.

Larry Hackett is the former editor-in-chief of People magazine, and a contributor to the US morning television news program Good Morning America