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The Memo: Trump COVID-19 bombshell upends 2020 race

Everything has been upended — again.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpGiuliani goes off on Fox Business host after she compares him to Christopher Steele Trump looks to shore up support in Nebraska NYT: Trump had 7 million in debt mostly tied to Chicago project forgiven MORE’s positive test for COVID-19, which he revealed in a tweet just before 1 a.m. on Friday, rocketed around the world, spooking stock markets and delivering a megawatt jolt of uncertainty to the election campaign.

Some of the repercussions from the latest news are plain. Others are unknowable.

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One reality is the starkest. The president, 74 and overweight, faces a grave health challenge. COVID-19 has killed around 208,000 people in the United States.

First lady Melania TrumpMelania TrumpThe Hill's Campaign Report: One week from Election Day | Biden looks to expand map | Trump trails narrowly in Florida, Arizona Melania Trump focuses on coronavirus in return to campaign trail Watch live: Melania Trump holds MAGA event MORE and one of the president’s closest aides, Hope HicksHope Charlotte HicksDocuments show Trump campaign ignored coronavirus guidelines at Duluth rally: report Trump aide won't get into whether Trump has done debate prep Trump seeks to change race with final debate MORE, have also been infected, but both women are much younger than the president at 50 and 31, respectively.

It is possible that the next few days will see a stabilization. The president is reportedly showing no symptoms. If that remains the case, he could be back on something resembling a normal schedule in a couple of weeks.

But there are more somber possibilities.

If Trump’s condition worsened significantly, he could invoke a clause of the 25th Amendment that allows a president to transfer his powers temporarily to the vice president.

If Vice President Pence took the reins at that point, it would only be the fourth time the clause in question — Section 3 — has been invoked in the past 40 years. President Reagan signed off on it once, and President George W. Bush twice. All three instances were for scheduled surgeries.

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There is also the possibility — remote for now, but plausible — that the president simply would not be healthy enough to seek a second term.

Such a scenario would spark political chaos. Depending on exactly how the situation developed, Pence could take over the presidency and the 2020 nomination, or a new GOP nominee could be selected by the Republican National Committee. Ballots already cast for Trump in early voting would accrue to his replacement.

Even if Trump’s condition does not worsen in a major way, the fate of the two remaining presidential debates hangs in the balance. It seems unlikely that the second debate, scheduled for Oct. 15 in Miami, will go ahead in person. The third debate is scheduled for Oct. 22 in Nashville.

Another huge question is whether Trump’s Democratic opponent, former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenGiuliani goes off on Fox Business host after she compares him to Christopher Steele Trump looks to shore up support in Nebraska Jeff Daniels narrates new Biden campaign ad for Michigan MORE, had any exposure to the virus during the first debate. No one knows when Trump became infected. The first clash put Biden into fairly close proximity to Trump for 90 minutes, roughly 48 hours before the latter’s positive test.

Biden, 77, is at high risk if he gets COVID-19, and his campaign has gone to great lengths to guard against the risk. It would be an astonishing development, even by 2020’s gothic standards, if Biden were to end up being infected by his opponent.

Any kind of orthodox campaigning by the president is out of the question for now. His schedule for Friday, which had included a roundtable with supporters at Trump International Hotel in Washington and an evening rally in Sanford, Fla., has been scrubbed of everything but a phone call, shortly after noon, about “COVID-19 support to vulnerable seniors” — a group of which the president is now himself a member.

The electoral question — whether Trump’s reelection chances will go up or down — is the hardest to answer. 

United Kingdom prime minister Boris Johnson was hospitalized with COVID-19 in April. His approval ratings spiked upward — briefly, as it turned out — around the same time. 

But Trump is a more polarizing figure even than Johnson, and his popularity has remained low and fairly static through all his twists and turns. Beyond his hardcore supporters, he has a very shallow reservoir of sympathy from which to draw.

The president’s illness at least changes the subject from his controversial comments during the first debate when he told the far-right Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.” Trump’s performance in that debate also drew widespread criticism for its rudeness.

Fervent Trump critics on social media have raised the possibility that his COVID-19 diagnosis could be faked, with the intention of sidelining recent bad news and procuring political advantage.

This seems unlikely. Hicks, who has been in close proximity to the president, is reported to be symptomatic. The president’s physician, Sean Conley, has confirmed that the president and first lady have tested positive and has said that the White House medical team will “maintain a vigilant watch” over their condition. 

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In any case, the COVID-19 news could deepen Trump’s electoral problems, which are already considerable. 

At the very least, it makes the coronavirus once again the preeminent issue in the campaign. Trump’s response to the pandemic has been found lacking by most of the American public. Now, he won’t be able to get off the subject.

The critique of Trump has always centered on his attempts to downplay the virus. He has insisted the pandemic will “disappear,” repeatedly cast doubt on expert medical opinion and has appeared ambivalent, at best, about safety measures such as mask-wearing. 

His own infection, far from drawing sympathy toward him, could just as easily deepen criticisms of his rhetorical recklessness. His mocking of Biden for the frequency with which he wears a mask looks particularly ill-judged.

Trump has boasted of the stock market’s performance even in the midst of this year’s turmoil, but Wall Street hates instability. Dow Jones Futures were down 300 points at 4:30 a.m., five hours before the market open.

There are other scenarios, too, that could be politically perilous. The president attended a fundraiser in New Jersey on Thursday, after Hicks had begun showing signs of infection. What if people at the fundraiser — or others who have been in contact with the president at the White House — have contracted COVID-19? 

Much remains unclear but one thing is certain: a tumultuous election campaign just received its biggest shock so far. 

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.