Early in the morning on October 2, President Donald Trump tweeted an announcement that he and First Lady Melania Trump had tested positive for COVID-19.
Thirty-five minutes prior, an E-6B Mercury plane was sighted off the coast of Washington, D.C. on public software that tracks airplanes. To some, this suggested that the White House was sending a message to possible adversaries about the country’s military capabilities in light of the president’s positive test. (One person actually predicted the positive test after noting the plane was in the air.) Others disagreed. “It is routine for E6-Bs to be seen in the air,” Vipin Narang, a professor of political science at MIT, told VICE News. The E-6Bs, platforms that enable the national command authority to communicate with our nuclear ballistic missile submarines, have apparently been spotted in air more than usual this year, but Narang said the concerns from amateur and professional “fly watchers” were devoid of context. “There's a problem when you look on any particular day you might see something. But if you don't look at the history, you know, you wouldn't know that it's actually pretty routine,” he added.
A spokesperson from the Department of Defense denied that there was anything unusual about the flight. “I can confirm these flights were pre-planned missions. Any timing to the President’s announcement is purely coincidental,” said Karen Singer, chief of media operations for U.S. Strategic Command to CNN’s Jim Sciutto. More generally, a spokesperson for the Joint Chiefs said in a statement that “there has been no change to our alert levels … there is no change to the readiness and capability of our armed forces.” Since the president’s positive test, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Mark Milley tested negative for the coronavirus.
Still, all eyes are on international reactions. “Everyone in the world watches the United States,” General Vincent K. Brooks, the former head of U.S. forces in Korea, told VICE News. “I’m not sure how leaders around the world will react, particularly our adversaries. I’ve seen some comments from China already that say he’s paid a price. Adversaries will likely use the news report as a basis for their own propaganda or informational purposes. Others will just remain silent. So we will see, but I don’t believe that it poses a physical national security threat at the present time.”
Not everyone is as sanguine, and fear regarding the U.S.'s possibly weakened military capacity has continued to spread. “With the President’s illness amid a divisive campaign, we should not discount the possibility that China will step up pressure on Taiwan or Russia [to] seek to take advantage in Eastern Europe. Important the U.S. signal to both that we are watching and remain fully capable,” tweeted Nicholas Burns, a Harvard professor and foreign policy advisor to Joe Biden’s campaign.
“This is a code red moment for the US government,” wrote national security analyst Samantha Vinograd in an article for CNN. “Right now, the White House is undoubtedly engaging in threat neutralization measures you would expect to see in a bio terror attack, including efforts to contain the outbreak and mitigate its impacts. But, doing so requires that mission critical resources are being diverted to these efforts, something America's enemies can seek to exploit.”
While some national security experts have sounded the alarm about possible actions from Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran, others think the real impact of President Trump’s positive coronavirus test will be on the image of the United States abroad. “This doesn’t change an adversary’s military calculus, as Trump is neither weakened nor incapacitated,” said Guy Snodgrass, former speechwriter and chief of communications for General James Mattis. “The bigger ‘risk’ is to America’s standing in the world. President Trump contracting the very virus he so easily dismissed will become the new bumper sticker for those seeking to diminish America’s authority and leadership abroad.”
Already, international newspapers around the world have written that the president contracted the virus due to his own negligence. While covering the positive test, Spanish newspaper El Pais wrote “Despite 200,000 deaths and over 7 million confirmed cases, the president kept events and meetings with multitudes who crowded together to greet him. In the majority of his acts, Trump has bragged about not wearing masks and made fun of his opponent for doing so. The same anti-mask policy is carried out in the West Wing of the White House.” French newspaper Le Figaro wrote “American journalists have pointed out that many of those close to the US president ostensibly refused to wear masks in the room during the presidential debate in Cleveland, Ohio,” and the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera added, “In the early months of the pandemic, Trump made not wearing a mask a sort of point of honor. Masks are not compatible with the role of a leader, he explained, saying he could not think of meeting heads of state, 'presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings, queens,' with a mask on.”
While many world leaders have expressed sympathy, some state actors have already mocked the president. Hu Xijin, the editor-in-chief of the China-owned Global Times, tweeted, “President Trump and the first lady have paid the price for his gamble to play down the COVID-19. The news shows the severity of the US’ pandemic situation. It will impose a negative impact on the image of Trump and the US, and may also negatively affect his reelection.” In Iran, an image of Trump with his head as the coronavirus was circulated by the country’s Nour News agency.
Though he is the most recent, Trump is not the first world leader to contract the coronavirus. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson tested positive in March, Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin in April, and President Jair Bolsanaro of Brazil in July.
“I don’t think the positive test makes much of a difference,” said Narang. “The adversaries have to assume that the president can discharge all of the duties he would normally discharge from his private residence. Unless there’s incapacitation, we have a clear chain of command for precisely these reasons." Regardless, Narang added, “the war isn’t coming today.”