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Trump hijacks his COVID infection for a self-serving photo-op

Jules witcover

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump is never one to fail converting even a personal setback into a political opportunity. His hijacking of his own case of COVID-19 into a self-aggrandizing joyride and photo-op outside the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center was classic Donald, and never mind the risk to Secret Service agents aboard the vehicle.

Thus did he compound the spectacle and the earlier misleading explanations by White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and attending White House physicians amid the major public-health crisis. Meadows repeatedly sought to minimize the infection, suggesting the president was on the road to recovery.

Meanwhile, attending doctors acknowledged that oxygen twice had been administered to him because of low blood oxygen readings, interpreted by outside medical experts as signs Trump was not yet out of the woods. Well before he was released from Walter Reed Monday, the top White House physician, Navy Commander Sean Conley, said the president might be sent back to the White House released soon if he continued to look and feel well.

Later, however, Conley confessed that in so saying “I was trying to reflect the upbeat attitude that the team, the president, that the course of his illness has had.” In not reporting then of the oxygen treatments, Conley said: “I didn’t want to give any information that might steer the course of illness in another direction. And in doing so, you know,” he lamely explained, “it came off that we were trying to hide something, which wasn’t necessarily true.”

Unsurprisingly, reporters covering the president’s comings and goings were dismayed, considering their own obligation to inform the public of his whereabouts and conduct. Trump himself on Twitter passed off the whole exercise as a valuable learning experience for him, ludicrously saying: “I learned it by really going to school; this is the real school. This isn’t the ‘Let’s read the books’ school. And I get it, and I understand it….”

But did he understand it when for months he dismissed the virus and insisted that it would soon go away? And does he understand that well over 200,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, and that bears considerable responsibility for that outcome?

In Salt Lake City, Utah, Vice President Mike Pence and Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris of California debated, in what usually is a low-wattage event, because most voters cast their ballots for the presidential nominees. But the nationally televised competition between them carries more interest now, in light of President Trump’s coronavirus infection and how it conceivably could position Pence closer to becoming the next president.

At the same time, the debate offered Harris, the lesser-known former California attorney general, her first major introduction to the electorate as the first African American woman seeking the vice presidency as Joe Biden’s running mate. In this most turbulent national election, the vice-presidential debate also could provide relief from the first Trump-Biden encounter in which the president threw caution and civility to the winds to salvage his slipping incumbency. Pence is notably a more restrained and mild-tempered politician than the man now in the Oval Office.

In any event, it never has been convincingly established that a running mate has ever made a major difference in a presidential election. In 1960, it was argued that Democrat John F. Kennedy narrowly win the presidency because his running mate, then-Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson, enabled JFK to carry LBJ’s home state of Texas.

This time around, Pence, as a former governor of Indiana, brings no such major electoral vote to the Republican ticket, and Democratic nominee Biden was certain from the start to carry solidly Democratic California regardless of the identity of his running mate.

A bigger question for both presidential nominees now is whether, in the face of the raging coronavirus pandemic and its current physical immobilization of Trump, the remaining two scheduled presidential debates will be held at all.

With the president continuing to trail Biden significantly all the public-opinion polls — including those conducted by his supposed safe haven, Fox News — Trump now needs those debates much more than Biden does.

Even if the unshackled assailant of that first debate were to repeat his angry and negative attacks of his more retrained foe in a second and third time around, Trump’s bite seems much less lethal than his bark right now.

Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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