The Swamp

When the White House is con­ta­gious

New York Magazine - - FEA­TURES - By Olivia Nuzzi

Don­ald trump was on the phone, and he was talk­ing about dy­ing. It was Satur­day, Oc­to­ber 3, and while his doc­tor had told the out­side world that the pres­i­dent’s symp­toms were noth­ing to worry about, Trump, co­cooned in his suite at Wal­ter Reed Na­tional Mil­i­tary Med­i­cal Cen­ter in Bethesda, Mary­land, was telling those close to him some­thing very dif­fer­ent.

“I could be one of the diers,” he said.

The per­son on the other end of the line couldn’t for­get that un­usual word the pres­i­dent used: dier. A sel­dom-said dic­tionary standard, it was a clas­sic Trump­ism, at once sin­is­ter and child­like. If be­ing a loser was bad, be­ing a dier was a lot worse. Losers can be­come win­ners again. Diers are losers for­ever. But aren’t we all diers in the end? Don­ald Trump, the least self-re­flec­tive man in Amer­ica, was con­tem­plat­ing his own mor­tal­ity.

He said it again: “I could be one of the diers.”

The pre­vi­ous day, at 12:54 a.m., he had an­nounced that he and the First Lady, Me­la­nia, had tested pos­i­tive for covid-19 in an out­break that would side­line dozens across the West Wing, the East Wing, the high­est lev­els of the fed­eral gov­ern­ment, the mil­i­tary ranks, Trump’s 2020 cam­paign team, and prom­i­nent sup­port­ers in the re­li­gious com­mu­nity. The virus had bar­reled into the very White House that al­lowed its spread through­out the United States, where 213,000 were dead and 7.6 mil­lion more were in­fected amid the big­gest eco­nomic col­lapse since the Great De­pres­sion.

As in­fec­tions swelled na­tion­wide, the virus made its way in­side the pres­i­dent him­self—an epic se­cu­rity fail­ure with no mod­ern ana­log. It was over a cen­tury ago, amid a pan­demic in 1919, that Woodrow Wil­son got sick in Paris. His White House blamed what it called a cold and a fever on the dreary weather. But, in fact, Wil­son was sick with the virus now known as the Span­ish flu, which killed hun­dreds of thou­sands of Amer­i­cans as his ad­min­is­tra­tion looked away. One hun­dred and one years later, the story of Trump’s “mild symp­toms” be­came less and less true as the hours ticked by. His fever crept up. His cough and con­ges­tion grew worse. Doc­tors gave him oxy­gen and ad­min­is­tered a high dose of an ex­per­i­men­tal an­ti­body treat­ment un­avail­able to the ail­ing masses and made us­ing fe­tal tis­sue, a prac­tice his ad­min­is­tra­tion op­poses, from the drug­maker Re­gen­eron. Still, he re­sisted go­ing to Wal­ter Reed. “I don’t need to go,” he said, ac­cord­ing to a per­son who spoke to him. “I’m fine. I’m fine. We have ev­ery­thing we need here.”

Per­suad­ing him to leave the White House re­quired an in­ter­ven­tion from his doc­tors, mem­bers of the White House op­er­a­tions staff, the Se­cret Ser­vice, and his son-in-law and se­nior ad­viser, Jared Kush­ner. They had failed to stop the mass deaths of high­risk Amer­i­cans, but they were go­ing to save Trump, the most im­por­tant high-risk Amer­i­can of them all. They told him, “This isn’t just your choice. This re­ally isn’t about you. It’s about the pres­i­dency. Our job is to pro­tect the pres­i­dency, and you oc­cupy it.” They asked him to think about the mil­i­tary and ev­ery­one else whose life would be up­ended if the state of the coun­try’s lead­er­ship was in doubt.

Fine. He agreed to walk across the South Lawn and board Marine One. The White

This is what it looks like when the pres­i­dent knows he’s los­ing, but it’s also close to what it looked like when he won.

House said the move was made “out of an abun­dance of cau­tion.” In a video posted on so­cial me­dia, the pres­i­dent hinted that things weren’t so great. He put it this way: “I’m go­ing to Wal­ter Reed hos­pi­tal. I think I’m do­ing very well, but we’re go­ing to make sure that things work out.”

In the hos­pi­tal, Trump’s world shrank overnight in a way it hadn’t since he ar­rived in Washington from New York to be sworn into of­fice nearly four years ago. Con­ta­gious and iso­lated from his fam­ily and clos­est aides, he was ac­com­pa­nied by Dan Scavino, the so­cial-me­dia di­rec­tor who had first been his cad­die and had sur­vived at his side longer than any­one who wasn’t blood, and Mark Mead­ows, his highly emo­tional chief of staff, who slept in a room nearby, and was at­tended to by a team of cam­era-con­scious doc­tors. In this ster­il­ized con­fine­ment, he tried to dis­tract him­self from his ill­ness. He plot­ted his es­cape, planned pub­lic-re­la­tions stunts, watched TV, and took calls from friends, mem­bers of his staff, and Repub­li­can law­mak­ers. But he re­mained con­sumed by what the doc­tors told him about his chances of sur­vival. It wasn’t a sure thing.

Nine months into the pan­demic and one month away from Elec­tion Day, the pres­i­dent con­sid­ered for the first time that the dis­ease killing him in the polls, threat­en­ing his po­lit­i­cal fu­ture, might just kill him, too. On the phone he re­marked sar­cas­ti­cally, “This change of scenery has been great.”

He asked for an up­date on who else in his cir­cle had con­tracted the virus, though he ex­pressed no re­gret, no in­di­ca­tion that he un­der­stood his own de­ci­sions could have led to the in­fec­tions. Un­able to process the irony of his own mis­for­tune, he tried his best to find the Trump­i­est spin. Looked at one way, he was hav­ing the great­est and most im­por­tant ill­ness of all time. He had the best care in the world, and he raved about the virtues of the drugs the doc­tors had him on, in­clud­ing dex­am­etha­sone, a steroid pump­ing up his lungs that can in­duce eu­pho­ria. He was awed by the won­ders of mod­ern medicine. He said he was feel­ing re­ally good, and it didn’t sound like he was ly­ing. Then he ad­mit­ted some­thing scary. That how he felt might not mean much in the end.

“This thing could go ei­ther way. It’s tricky. They told me it’s tricky,” the pres­i­dent said. “You can tell it can go ei­ther way.”

Sta­tis­ti­cally, the coro­n­avirus is more likely to cost Don­ald Trump the White House than his life, though the threat to the lat­ter isn’t help­ing the for­mer. Three weeks be­fore the elec­tion, po­ten­tially con­ta­gious and freak­ing everybody out, Trump faces what looks like the end of his pres­i­dency. “He’s mis­han­dled the coro­n­avirus, he’s never been pop­u­lar, and he’s gonna lose badly. I think it’s pretty sim­ple,” a se­nior Repub­li­can of­fi­cial said. “Of course he was go­ing to say, ‘Oh look, I feel great! Look how badly I beat this puny lit­tle virus!’ Mean­while,

it touches ev­ery Amer­i­can’s life ev­ery day in mul­ti­ple dif­fer­ent ways, and he’s han­dled it badly and peo­ple don’t for­get that.” Or, as ex–Trump ad­viser Sam Nun­berg put it, “Ev­ery­thing has just com­pletely gone to shit.”

The polls sug­gest not just that the pres­i­dent will lose to Joe Bi­den but that he might lose bigly, in a land­slide.

When the coro­n­avirus came to Amer­ica, the pres­i­dent was pre­oc­cu­pied with more ob­vi­ous threats. The first pos­i­tive case was con­firmed in Washington State on Jan­uary 21, and that same day, as he landed in Davos, the Se­nate was de­bat­ing an or­ga­niz­ing res­o­lu­tion for the pres­i­dent’s im­peach­ment trial. In the Alps, he dis­missed the news about the virus at home. “We have it to­tally un­der con­trol,” he said. In fact, the pres­i­dent soon thought that things could hardly be go­ing bet­ter.

Af­ter three years of cri­sis, the elec­tion year had be­gun with his ac­quit­tal on charges of abuse of power and ob­struc­tion of jus­tice brought by the House un­der Ar­ti­cles of Im­peach­ment. At the same time, the econ­omy was boom­ing. In the Demo­cratic pri­mary, which would se­lect his op­po­nent for the gen­eral elec­tion, the can­di­date he most feared, Joe Bi­den, seemed to be chok­ing. And Michael Bloomberg was threat­en­ing to blow the whole thing up any­way. Trump thought about the last cam­paign and, ever su­per­sti­tious, how to repli­cate its magic. He was re­lieved when Hope Hicks, his clos­est aide, re­turned to the White House af­ter two years in ex­ile in Los An­ge­les. Around the same time, he wel­comed back Johnny McEn­tee, a for­mer aide he be­lieved to be a maga whis­perer, ca­pa­ble of know­ing ex­actly what would ap­peal to his base. He didn’t think about the coro­n­avirus much. And then the deaths be­gan.

“If the pres­i­dent had his way, he’d be back in Fe­bru­ary,” Newt Gin­grich told me. The for­mer Speaker of the House is an op­por­tunist, and in the era of Don­ald Trump, that means he must be an op­ti­mist. In 2016, Gin­grich sup­ported Trump’s cam­paign in the hope that he’d be asked to be the vicepres­i­dent. In­stead, Trump re­paid his loy­alty not with power or higher sta­tus in his­tory but with the cushi­est gig in Europe: He made Gin­grich the hus­band of the United States am­bas­sador to the Vat­i­can, based in Rome. Be­fore the pan­demic, when­ever you’d call the guy, he was in a loud restau­rant—“Hi! Yeah?! This is Newt!”—hav­ing the time of his life. So one might un­der­stand why he’s in­vested in

keep­ing this whole thing go­ing.

Gin­grich grasps bet­ter than most how to stick to a mes­sage, and he keeps a straight face on Trump’s be­half even as he ar­gues things he knows can­not be true. That voter sur­veys are skewed by the left-wing me­dia. “I think the elec­tion is not quite like the pub­lic-opinion polls,” he says. That the pres­i­dent’s ill­ness is a po­lit­i­cal as­set. “It gives him a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of what peo­ple are go­ing through,” he says. Or that the pres­i­dent doesn’t mean to im­ply those killed by the virus were weak when he says he’ll beat it be­cause he’s strong. “I think he’s talk­ing about a na­tional at­ti­tude. Should it be ‘Hun­ker down in the base­ment’ or ‘Re­open the schools’?” he says. Still, he can­not help but break char­ac­ter to ad­mit the ob­vi­ous: “If the pres­i­dent had his way, there’d be no virus. There’d be his­tor­i­cally high em­ploy­ment among Blacks and Lati­nos. But you don’t get to pick the cir­cum­stances in which you run.”

And the cir­cum­stances have grown less pick­able each day. “I think some of this is sad to watch,” Nun­berg said. “It’s get­ting to the point where he’s al­most turn­ing into a laugh­ing­stock. What I’m wor­ried about is whether he wants to com­pletely self­de­struct and take ev­ery­thing down with him vis-à-vis the elec­tion and the Repub­li­can Party.” He added, “This is a guy who’s not gonna lose joy­fully.”

It does ap­pear at times as though self­de­struc­tion may be the point. How else could you ex­plain the Plague Pa­rade cir­cling Wal­ter Reed, in which a very sick Trump boarded a tightly sealed SUV with his Se­cret Ser­vice agents so he could wave at the sup­port­ers who had come to fly their flags on the street? Or the Evi­tain­spired re­turn to the White House, in which a still very sick Trump as­cended the stair­case to the bal­cony, ripped off his face mask, and saluted to no one as his pho­tog­ra­pher snapped away? Or call­ing in to the Fox Busi­ness Chan­nel to sug­gest his in­fec­tion may be the fault of the Gold Star mil­i­tary fam­i­lies, since they were al­ways ask­ing to hug him? This is what it looks like when the pres­i­dent knows he’s los­ing, but it’s also close to what it looked like when he won—af­ter all, he thought he was los­ing in 2016, too. We all did. “You’re never as smart as you look when you win, and never as dumb as you look when you lose,” ac­cord­ing to David Ax­el­rod. In Trump’s case, it may be more like this: What seems like ge­nius when he man­ages to survive is the very mad­ness that threat­ens his sur

vi­val in the first place.

A se­nior White House of­fi­cial told me there has been an on­go­ing ef­fort to per­suade the pres­i­dent not to do any of this, as there al­ways is dur­ing his episodes of ad­vanced ma­nia. Asked what the ef­fort looked like this time, with Trump phys­i­cally re­moved from most of the peo­ple who might try to calm him down, the of­fi­cial said, “Well, for starters, it’s un­suc­cess­ful.”

One for­mer White House of­fi­cial said that stop­ping Trump from do­ing some­thing stupid that he re­ally wants to do is pos­si­ble only if you’re “ac­tu­ally sit­ting in front of him.” Sick them­selves or try­ing to avoid a sick pres­i­dent, “the peo­ple he trusts and re­spects who would be bar­ri­ers to that be­hav­ior don’t seem to be around,” this per­son said. “It just looks so chaotic. Duh.”

A sec­ond for­mer White House of­fi­cial said the prob­lem is “now peo­ple are so bro­ken down, to the point where ev­ery­one’s been in ‘Je­sus, take the wheel’ mode for the last cou­ple years, and fight­ing against him is only gonna get them burned. Why even try?” The pres­i­dent’s staff, this per­son said, have no abil­ity to think strate­gi­cally be­cause the pres­i­dent’s be­hav­ior poses new threats to sur­vival ev­ery five min­utes. “I don’t think they’re even con­sid­er­ing what hap­pens if he’s back in the White House and he needs oxy­gen or a ven­ti­la­tor. Their view is ‘If it hap­pens, well, we’ll fuck­ing fig­ure it out when it hap­pens!’ ”

Like Gin­grich, they have to stay op­ti­mistic. “They aren’t even con­sid­er­ing what hap­pens when he’s feel­ing worse than he’s feel­ing now, when he’s hopped up full of steroids and other per­for­mance en­hancers. He’s on the sort of drugs you’d see with a Tour de France rider in the mid’90s!” An­other way to say this, the for­mer White House of­fi­cial said, was that the

pres­i­dent is “hopped up on more drugs than a Bel­gian rac­ing pi­geon.” In keep­ing with the bird theme, this per­son said the pres­i­dent’s ill­ness was proof that “the chick­ens are com­ing home to roost.”

“Go­ing back to 2016,” this per­son added, “you al­ways had th­ese warn­ings from the Clin­ton camp and Democrats and the Never-Trump Repub­li­cans that, if he takes of­fice and if a cri­sis hits, it’s gonna be a mess. But peo­ple don’t re­ally vote on that when there’s not a cri­sis. Peo­ple think, A cri­sis isn’t gonna hap­pen! May as well vote for the guy with a good tax pol­icy. Sud­denly, this hap­pens, and you al­ways as­sume it won’t hap­pen to you, but when you act like that, bad things hap­pen!”

One the­ory of Trump’s self-im­mo­la­tion cam­paign is that it’s about gain­ing a sense of con­trol. “I don’t think he wants to lose. I think he wants to have ex­cuses for why he did lose,” a third for­mer White House of­fi­cial said. “If it’s the bal­lot, the China virus, if it’s Nancy Pelosi. I just think he wants an ex­cuse.”

As he con­sid­ers the end, he fakes his way through a per­for­mance of po­lit­i­cal pos­si­bil­ity. One per­son who pub­licly sup­ports Trump and con­sid­ers him a friend said that, in con­ver­sa­tions with White House and cam­paign of­fi­cials fol­low­ing the pres­i­dent’s re­lease from the hos­pi­tal, it be­came clear that no one who was sup­posed to know seemed sure when he would be okay. “They’re putting out a big ‘Oh, ev­ery­thing’s fine!’ face. But I don’t think they know how much stamina he’s gonna have,” this per­son said. “I didn’t like the way he looked on that bal­cony. Last week, I would’ve said that he was def­i­nitely go­ing to win. Now, I don’t know.”

Don­ald trump does not of­ten get sick. The phi­los­o­phy of Fred Trump de­creed that “sick­ness was weak­ness,” Mary Trump told me, “which ob­vi­ously Don­ald has ad­hered to, which is a big part of the rea­son we’re in this hor­ri­ble mess we’re in.”

Mary Trump is the pres­i­dent’s niece as well as a psy­chol­o­gist, whose best seller, Too Much and Never Enough, an­a­lyzes her un­cle through the dys­func­tional fam­ily he came from. In her view, the pres­i­dent is best un­der­stood as a self-un­aware Tin Man, aban­doned as a small child by his sick mother and re­jected by his so­ciopath fa­ther un­til he be­came use­ful to him, whose end­less search for love and ap­proval plays out as men­tal war­fare on the Free World he im­prob­a­bly rep­re­sents. “In or­der to deal with the ter­ror and the lone­li­ness he ex­pe­ri­enced, he de­vel­oped th­ese de­fense mech­a­nisms that es­sen­tially made him unlov­able,” Mary said. “Over time, they hard­ened into char­ac­ter traits that my grand­fa­ther came to value. When you’re some­body who craves love but doesn’t un­der­stand what it means—he just knows he misses it and needs it, but he’ll never have it be­cause he’s some­body no­body loves—that’s fuck­ing

“He’s on the sort of drugs you’d see with a Tour de France rider in the mid-’90s!”

tragic. He still needs to go to prison for the rest of his life. It’s not a de­fense. But it’s sad.”

For two weeks be­fore he died, Fred Trump was hos­pi­tal­ized at Long Is­land Jewish Med­i­cal Cen­ter in what Mary re­mem­bers as “a very beau­ti­ful cor­ner room with lots of sun­light.” With her un­cle at his fa­ther’s bed­side, she said, “ev­ery­one just stood around chitchat­ting, mak­ing small talk—they just don’t un­der­stand how to be hu­man.” When his mother was in the hos­pi­tal, of­ten for os­teo­poro­sis and once af­ter a bru­tal mug­ging, Trump vis­ited with an at­ti­tude of “Why the fuck do I have to be here?” she said. “It was of no use to him what­so­ever.” When Mary’s fa­ther, Fred Jr., died in 1981, his brother didn’t even show up to the fu­neral.

In his 2007 book Think Big, the fu­ture pres­i­dent re­called how, a decade be­fore, he “un­ex­pect­edly came down with a wicked case of the flu” in the mid­dle of his ne­go­ti­a­tions to buy a news­pa­per (he didn’t say which one). “I felt ter­ri­ble. It was so bad that I called the sell­ers and told them we would have to post­pone the clos­ing un­til I was bet­ter,” he said, which was “very un­usual” be­cause “I never get the flu. It’s been ten years and I haven’t been sick a day since then.” Trump didn’t share the story of this freak ill­ness to re­veal his hu­man­ity but to add to his myth. He lost out to an­other buyer in the end, he said, and he was happy he did be­cause, he claimed, the un­named paper turned out to be a bad in­vest­ment that was some other sucker’s prob­lem. “Catch­ing the flu was a lucky break that saved me from ruin,” he said. “Some­times luck makes bet­ter deals than tal­ent.” In other words, the idea that sick­ness is weak­ness, ex­cept for when it hap­pens to him, took root a quar­ter-cen­tury be­fore he made it his case for re­elec­tion.

Trump is aware that he isn’t healthy. His wife, an East­ern Euro­pean for­mer model who eats salmon and greens, length­ens her mus­cles on a Pi­lates re­former, and glows as if cast in bronze, is “healthy.” As a 74-yearold who takes the un­sci­en­tific po­si­tion that hu­man be­ings have a fi­nite amount of en­ergy that ex­er­cise need­lessly drains, and who thus never en­gages in any phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity more stren­u­ous than golf or tweet­ing, and whose vices in­clude red meat, French fries, ice cream, Oreos, and Diet Coke, he knows he is very much not that.

And he un­der­stood that with age and weight comes height­ened risk in the coro­n­avirus pan­demic. But he couldn’t ac­cept that he wouldn’t be fine, that he was part of the “at-risk se­niors” his ad­vis­ers kept telling him he should think about since they were an im­por­tant vot­ing de­mo­graphic and they were lit­er­ally dy­ing by the thou­sands. What he could ac­cept even less than not be­ing fine was not seem­ing fine. His sup­port­ers like to imag­ine him as a car­toon­ish rep­re­sen­ta­tion of his vig­or­ous, manly spirit, a joke di­rected at any­one who doesn’t find it funny. In memes, he body-slams his en­e­mies. A video from the Trump cam­paign, re­leased the week of his covid-19 di­ag­no­sis, shows him body-slam­ming the virus. When I stopped by the home of Wil­lard and Dolly Smith in New Hamp­shire last month, the flag on the cou­ple’s front lawn showed Trump’s fleshy face on Rambo’s ripped body. “I’m back be­cause I’m a per­fect phys­i­cal spec­i­men and I’m very young,” the pres­i­dent joked on Fox Busi­ness on Thurs­day. But the stabs at self-dep­re­ca­tion, more nec­es­sary at this mo­ment than ever be­fore, do lit­tle to mask deep in­se­cu­rity. Since his ill­ness, the makeup the pres­i­dent ap­plies him­self has got­ten so heavy and so dark that rather than ob­scure his pale col­or­ing, it em­pha­sizes the con­trast be­tween his un­nat­u­ral face and the bare skin of his ears and hands. (All those years spent judg­ing beauty pageants, and he never learned from the con­tes­tants the value of body makeup.)

Per­son­al­ity is pol­icy in the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, and the pres­i­dent’s in­se­cu­rity has made the un­cer­tainty about the coun­try’s lead­er­ship—un­avoid­able when any chief ex­ec­u­tive falls ill—even worse. His un­will­ing­ness to ad­mit hu­man frailty has led the White House and its doc­tors to keep in­for­ma­tion about his ill­ness not only from the pub­lic and the press (three mem­bers of which have, so far, been in­fected at the White House too) but from his own staff. Af­ter Hope Hicks be­gan ex­pe­ri­enc­ing symp­toms at the Min­nesota maga rally on Wed­nes­day, forc­ing her to iso­late in the back of the plane on the trip home, of­fi­cials with whom she’d had con­tact re­mained in the dark. Af­ter she tested pos­i­tive on Thurs­day af­ter­noon, the White House failed to no­tify oth­ers who would soon test pos­i­tive them­selves. They learned about it when the world did, not with an of­fi­cial dis­clo­sure but with a leak to the me­dia. “The pres­i­dent could’ve given it to her,” one of those peo­ple told me, in fair­ness, but “I would’ve done things dif­fer­ent that day, had I known.”

Trump did know, but he didn’t change his plans. At 1 p.m. on Thurs­day, he flew to his Bed­min­ster, New Jer­sey, golf club, for a fund-raiser with hun­dreds of his sup­port­ers, some of whom he spoke with in­doors. Later that night, he tweeted about Hicks be­ing sick. “Ter­ri­ble!” he said. “The First Lady and I are wait­ing for our test re­sults. In the mean­time, we will be­gin our quar­an­tin­ing process.”

Read­ing the mes­sage, the per­son said, “I as­sumed he must’ve had a pre­lim­i­nary pos­i­tive one.” The lack of trans­parency, this per­son added, is “symp­to­matic about how peo­ple I work with al­ways keep the wrong things se­cret.” Sui­ci­dal in all senses, this is the Trumpian mad­ness that threat­ens the pres­i­dent’s po­lit­i­cal and earthly fu­ture as it puts at risk ev­ery­one around him.

As one White House of­fi­cial put it: “Everybody at the top should be fired.”

SEPT. 26: Trump held a press con­fer­ence in the Rose Gar­den to an­nounce Amy Coney Bar­rett’s nom­i­na­tion to the Supreme Court.

OCT. 5: The night Trump re­turned, a mem­ber of the White House clean­ing staff sprayed the press brief­ing room.

covid and the vac­cine.

OCT. 7: Trump spoke from out­side the Oval Of­fice about hav­ing

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