However, the dizzying series of events of this past week, and what results from them, could put that stability to the test.
The week started with a momentous event for Trump: the announcement of a Supreme Court nominee who could tip the balance of the court for years or decades to come. It ended with the president in the hospital, having contracted the virus he spent months downplaying.
It’s too early to say whether anything has fundamentally changed as far as the race’s trajectory, and predictions to that effect have long proved foolhardy. But this is also a time in which people are beginning to genuinely tune in to the race and actually decide who should be president. Even the cementing of Trump’s underdog status would be significant, given early voting has already begun and time to change the race in his favor is running out.
The first bombshell came Sunday, when the New York Times finally got its hands on the tax returns the president has spent years attempting to keep hidden. They showed, as plenty hypothesized they would, that the billionaire president had paid basically no federal income taxes for most of the past two decades — exactly $750 in both 2016 and 2017 and precisely nothing in 10 of the previous 15 years.
Then came Tuesday’s presidential debate, the first of the 2020 race, in which Trump repeatedly interrupted Biden in a way that made it largely unwatchable. Trump topped if off by equivocating on whether he would denounce white supremacists. Trump said “sure” twice when asked to do so, but then when asked to condemn one specific group, the Proud Boys, he told them to “stand back and stand by,” before quickly adding the “somebody’s got to do something about antifa and the left, because this is not a right-wing problem.”
Even some Trump media allies and Republicans said the president needed to do better and clarify himself. But the White House held out for two days, repeatedly pointing to past statements they argued were sufficient and declining to offer updated, explicit condemnations. Ultimately, Trump gave in, providing the direct denunciation the White House had for some reason resisted during a Thursday night interview with Sean Hannity, having allowed the situation to inexplicably fester for 48 hours.
By that point though, the big flap was quickly becoming old news. In the same interview with Hannity, Trump addressed a Bloomberg News report that his close aide, Hope Hicks, had tested positive for the coronavirus. He proceeded to speak in terms that suggested he might have contracted it as well. Within hours, we learned that he had.
Suddenly, Trump and the White House’s persistent eschewing of health officials’ guidelines hit very close to home, providing a case-in-point for his critics.
A president whose pandemic leadership already polled poorly as the United States contended with the worst continued outbreak in the First World suddenly was having his past statements initially dismissing the virus and about wearing masks thrown back in his face.
His decision to hold large rallies and in-person events — most of them overwhelmingly mask-free, including one even after Hicks had tested positive — was exposed for being truly cavalier. Not only was the president now sick, but panic ensued over how much his approach jeopardized the people around him and risked hamstringing the top echelons of American government.
By the end of Friday, Trump was taking a helicopter to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where he is set to spend several days — after the administration initially said he would remain working at the White House.
The timing of all of this couldn’t seemingly be worse. Not only is the president, who longed for the adulation of his crowds and pushed for returning to normal public campaigning, suddenly stuck in quarantine for nearly half of the remaining race — while the supposedly basement-dwelling Biden begins to emerge more publicly — but it utterly recasts the race away from the things Trump wanted to talk about, at least for the time being.
There was, after all, another hugely significant event that happened within the same week: Trump’s nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court on Sept. 26. Upon her likely confirmation, Barrett would shift the court in a historically conservative direction, 6 to 3. The push to fast-track her confirmation seemed geared toward reminding conservative voters just what they had gotten out of Trump’s presidency, whatever they felt about the tweets, the controversy and all the other noise.
Republicans signaled that they will push forward with her confirmation hearings, which are set to begin Oct. 12, and Barrett has both tested negative for the virus this week and previously recovered from it this summer. But several of the emerging infections we’ve seen have come in people who attended the overwhelmingly mask-free outdoor announcement of her nomination, including former White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien, and Sens. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), both members of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
While the Oct. 12 date for Barrett’s hearings mean there might be time in which Tillis and Lee can recover and participate in the process, there remains the real specter of the virus spreading — or already having spread — around the Capitol. Republicans have little margin for error on the nomination, both on votes and the timeline, given Democrats could soon retake the Senate. (Republicans have a two-vote majority on the Judiciary Committee and a six-vote majority in the full Senate.)
It’s possible today’s events will fade come mid-to-late October; the temptation in election seasons is always to overemphasize the here-and-now. And though the coronavirus has hit older Americans the hardest, as The Post’s health team reports, someone in Trump’s category has only about a 10 to 15 percent chance of severe illness. His allies are already speculating about a scenario in which Trump recovers and then uses his convalescence to rally sympathy or even support behind his protestations about the seriousness of the virus.
That’s highly theoretical, of course, and other world leaders and governors who have contracted the virus haven’t seen such a political benefit. What’s more, Trump seems to need, more than anything, for voters to sour on Biden like they’ve soured on him — similar to what happened in 2016 with Hillary Clinton — and Trump’s persistent domination of the headlines makes that more difficult.
If anything could truly change the race on Trump’s side — for better or worse — what we’ve seen over the past week would seem difficult to exceed, especially with votes already being banked and time running out to wage a comeback. Of course, there are still four more weeks until Election Day.