InfoMullet: Et tu, Covid?
TLDRUpFront: President Trump’s transfer to Walter Reed Hospital with COVID19 after multiple possible super-spreader events threaten his campaign’s continuity, puts the timeline for a SCOTUS nomination at risk and has created a national security risk. With nearly 45 individuals testing positive or self-isolating, including the entire Joint Chiefs of Staff, due to exposure and more to come this could cascade into military leadership, election and control of the Senate.
FULL Context in the Back:
For nearly a year, President Trump and Republican officials claimed the pandemic was near an end, downplayed the health risks of catching COVID19, and hyped unproven treatments. After two possible super-spreader events, they find the pandemic is still here, comorbidity matters, and unproven treatments do not work.
2020 ain’t here to play.
A super-spreader event in COVID19 occurs when prime conditions for infection intersect with an individual disproportionately capable of spreading the virus. A recent study on contact tracing found that 8% of COVID19 infected individuals accounted for 60% of subsequent infections, and 7 out of 10 of those who become infected pass it on to no one else.(1) If that individual then joins a crowd of people who are not wearing masks or keeping social distance, the risk of a super-spreader event grows.
Although contact tracing is still ongoing, it appears that a Rose Garden ceremony to announce Supreme Court Nominee Judge Amy Barrett and the recent Presidential debate were two such events. Around these two individual events are a constellation of smaller events, debate preparation, event lead teams, campaign rallies, fundraising appearances, and staff meetings one would expect with less than a month to go in a hotly contested Presidential election season. Unlike most super-spreader events where the individuals at risk don’t continue the cycle, this network-of-networks provides dozens of pathways for infected individuals to pass on the virus to others and even additional super-spread events. The risk falls disproportionately on Republicans. The Rose Garden ceremony was not a top-draw for Democrats, and Biden’s campaign has taken a much more cautious approach to thumb its nose at a world-spanning novel virus.
As a result, the consequences of these events are falling disproportionately on Republican leadership and key personnel impacting the Presidential campaign, but Barrett’s nomination process, as well as close races they need to win to retain the Senate. Here is a list I will be updating with the confirmed positive cases, status, and potential impact. Below the list, I’ll cover the common issues of concern in limited form. (2)(8)(9)
Due to space considerations, the full list of confirmed positive and negative-but-self-isolating personnel is now at the bottom of the article.
Continuity of Government
Continuity of government operations refers to a broad range of activities and efforts to ensure that in the event of a catastrophe, disaster, military attack, or health crisis that national security functions can continue uninterrupted. Fortunately, the United States Federal government has spent decades honing government operations’ continuity first under threat of a nuclear decapitation strike during the Cold War. More recently, on 9/11, only the passengers of Flight 93 prevented a jetliner from ramming into the Capital Building, driving home the need for planned and exercised continuity operations.
These continuity exercises continued for COVID19 within the national security and key mission-essential areas going far beyond masking and distancing. Regular testing, contact tracing, and remote work became standard. Staggered cohort shifts split personnel into isolated bubbles that worked together but never interacted with personnel from a different bubble. If an infection broke out in one bubble, it was less likely to cross into another. The Department of Defense and intelligence community announced they would be paying very close attention to any strategic or adversaries who may wish to exploit a national security weakness during a Presidential illness.
At this point, the President of the United States remains Donald Trump. Were he unable to conduct his duties due to symptoms or require more invasive medical treatment, a temporary transfer of power to Vice President can be accomplished under the same mechanisms that occur when a President goes under anesthesia for routine medical treatment. A more permanent transfer of power is outlined in the Byzantine processes of the 25th Amendment. Moreover, should the President pass, the power automatically falls to the Vice President upon his swearing-in. Although the Vice President is at risk of exposure from these events, he has tested negative. If both the President and Vice President are unavailable to perform their duties, the presidency’s acting power falls to the Speaker of the House, currently Representative Nancy Pelosi (D), CA. This power is an acting power only. The Speaker does not “become” President.
UPDATE 10/6/2020: Although the continuity of government remains intact a serious national security risk has emerged as the entire Joint Chiefs of Staff save one* has gone into self-isolation and remote working after possible exposure to a Vice Commandant of the Coast Guard who tested positive for COVID19. It’s unclear what route the Vice Commandant was infected – he was at a Gold Star family event at the White House. But there have also been two military personnel; the Coast Guard Aide to the President and the President’s Valet who have now tested positive as part of the White House outbreak.
All Joint Chiefs of Staff had worked alongside Vice Commandant Charles Ray last week and are now self-isolating out of an abundance of caution and taking daily COVID19 tests. Although the DoD is well equipped to work remotely for senior leadership with yesterday’s technology bought at today’s prices, a spreading outbreak in senior levels of the military due raise the risk of a serious national security concern. Not from a gap in the chain of command – but an increasing belief of adversaries that the leadership structure of the United States Government – civilian and military is being simultaneously degraded grappling with the crisis.
*General Berger, Commandant of the Marine Corps, is reportedly doing push-ups in his office to keep “da ‘Vid” away.
Continuity of Campaign
Although a Presidential campaign is not the same as the US Federal government – it faces the same risks of continuing normal operations when experiencing a sudden shock. Activities from fundraising, rallies, debate preparation, ad buys and coordinating the array of moving parts all require careful coordination. Driving home this point, the Clinton election campaign located in New York missed warning signals from Michigan and Wisconsin as the states were tipping towards Trump near the end of the 2016 election. (3)(4)
However, the continuity operations practiced in other parts of the government and private business did not appear to reach into the White House political offices or Presidential campaign, both of which work for either the President or the RNC. Not the Federal government. The President and his supporters themselves are some of the biggest obstacles, and now they are paying the cost.
The Presidential election campaign went offline yesterday and may remain so over the weekend. Upcoming rallies, campaign stops, and fundraising efforts canceled. These are crucial activities necessary to rally the base, get out of the vote, and find funds to pay for it all. Biden has outraised President Trump by nearly $100M. (5)
The key operations center of the campaign isn’t spared either. Campaign staff sent home yesterday were told get tested and self-quarantine if they were exposed to any confirmed individuals. Deep-cleaning of campaign headquarters has closed that operation, putting a weekend-long pause on what would be 24/7 operations this late in the election. Such disruption is similar to what workers and managers experienced earlier in the pandemic when they had to lift-and-shift entire operations used to working together online in short notice. Likewise, teachers who are hands at times are forced by government officials demanding schools reopen and have also struggled to move classrooms online. Whether tragedy or irony, it is not clear what the campaign’s online work coordination capabilities are. However, I’m pretty sure it does not involve Zoom or TikTok.
The continuity-of-campaign hit is not just to external activities and staff operations but extends into key leadership to coordinate and guide this transition. When the President’s illness requires a rethink of his entire campaign strategy with thirty-days left, both his Campaign Manager and the Chairwoman of the RNC, out of action and at home, in well-organized and managed teams, the loss of a key leader need not be a setback. However, in the chaos the President favors, intramural bickering and infighting to curry Presidential favor are common, even temporary gaps can create dysfunction opportunities.
Then there is the Campaigner-in-Chief, President Trump himself. The habitual Tweeter has made only two other short posts since announcing his positive test. With no press-conferences, TV appearances, and quiet Twitter, his ability to dominate and steer the national conversation is reduced. Although this pause allows the nation to focus on something for more than a few days –the President’s COVID19 infection means they are going to focus on his pandemic response. With over 209,000 dead as of this morning, an economy facing another wave of furloughs and layoffs, and what appears to be a second wave arriving as we begin the flu season – that focus is not going to fair favorably on the incumbent.
Concerns have also been raised of what happens if President Trump becomes debilitated or passes before the election, or before the Electoral College votes? COVID19 infections, especially in the age and weight demographic of the President can resolve in under 20 days, or last for weeks or longer. Previously on the InfoMullet YouTube channel I laid out the general outline and scenarios of how Presidential elections work with the milestones according to the Constitution.
The good news is that because of Continuity of Government concerns and understanding how delicate a process this is, the Constitution and laws are robust when it comes to handling a candidate who dies just prior an election, or before they can be sworn in. Even though it’s never happened before, the steps are clear.
The bad news is the internet doesn’t know this and is totally freaking out.
First, if the President is incapacitated or passed from the COVID19 virus prior to the election. Mind you this isn’t an impossible scenario. I’m giving it a 1 in 4 chance based on his age and comorbidity factors. His treatment at Walter Reed will be world class, which can mitigate those risks. But because it’s a one in four chance on a unique math I can claim a “538” and say I was right no matter what happens. Who a State votes for in the Electoral College based on popular election is determined by State law and party guidance. Both political parties and all States direct that if a candidate for President dies, but won the state, then those electoral college votes will go to the Vice President. So if Trump wins on November 3rd, but dies before the Electoral College vote in December, then Mike Pence would be the incoming President, even as he assumes the duties of acting-President under the succession clauses of the Constitution.
However, if President Trump dies after the Electoral College votes, but before his inauguration, which is less of a chance but still non-zero, things get odd. The 12th Amendment has no provision to remove Electoral College votes from a dead candidate. So if Trump wins on November 3rd, but dies between mid-December and the hearing of the votes in early January, then his votes couldn’t be reallocated to Pence. In that case no candidate would have the majority of the Electoral College, and the election would go to the House and Senate as described in the video above. The Senate to determine the Vice President by majority vote within which the current Vice President cannot vote. But the House determines the President voting by State delegation. The trick is they are only able to vote among the top-three candidates for President. Which means it would likely come down to Biden. The House GOP, assuming they hold the majority of State Delegations, could not vote for President Pence – even if Trump’s ticket won the electoral college. It would basically come down to Biden and whichever 3rd party received the most votes. President Jo Jorgenson anyone?
Although this is pretty clear by the Constitutional amendments – it certainly wouldn’t go down well. But it’s not like this is the first time that what seemed like a pretty clear election result was later reversed by the clearly written, but often hard-to-understand-why rules of the Constitution. I’m sure the Democrats would be willing to offer thoughts and prayers to the GOP and Trump supporters smarting from what felt like an election being undone. This is an extremely unlikely event of course – and one of the outlier risks of the COVID19 GOP outbreak. Far more likely is a disruption of the rush to confirm President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee.
SCOTUS Nomination Process
The first potential super-spreader event was the Rose Garden ceremony nominating Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Federal Judge Amy Barrett. The President depends on lock-step support by the Republican majority in the Senate and on the Senate Judiciary Committee to see his nomination through prior to the election or seating of a new Congress. Invites to a special White House event went out to Senate Judiciary Committee members.
You see where this is going.
The event itself was not limited to the outdoor Rose Garden ceremony but consisted of receptions and after-events inside where maskless Republican big whigs rubbed elbows and compared viral loads. Of the four reported GOP Judiciary Committee members who attended the nomination, two, Senators Lee and Tillis, have tested positive. They are currently quarantining at home. The Senate Judiciary Committee, which must vote to approve Barret’s nomination before it can go to the floor, is currently split 12-10 GOP vs. Democrat. However, with Lee and Tillis out, any vote would be a 10-10 split. Although current Senate rules allow proxy voting, they are only allowed if such a vote would not affect the outcome. If the Judiciary Committee were to vote today, the Republicans would not have enough votes to pass Barrett out of the Committee. Update: Senator Ben Masse (R-Neb) who was at the Rose Garden ceremony has begun self-isolating as a precaution, even though he has so far tested negative. This takes the Judiciary Committee voting to 9-10.
Hearings are not scheduled to begin until October 12th, in theory giving all Senators time to recover and return to their duties. But we’re still learning over this weekend which of the Senators who attended the ceremony will be positive, and then there’s all the interactions those Senators had with other Senators, staffers, and whom those networked with. Under McConnell’s leadership, the Senate has been less adaptive to the realities of COVID19, better than the White House, although that is not hard. If there is a significant spreading event in the Senate, given the population’s average age, it could impact the nomination process and the GOP’s ability to maintain its majority and key downstream elections.
As above so below. As the top of the ticket goes in a Presidential ticket, it fares the ticket’s bottom. A Trump supporter energized by a rally to vote likely votes R across the board. Absent that rally because the President can’t travel – it’s a question whether that supporter still shows up and votes a slate of Republican names. Fundraising events hosted by a sitting President and national Committee are vital for local races that get a pie piece. Since Republicans are being outraised and outspent by Democrats and across the board in both House and Senate, this fundraising loss can be crucial. (7)
Specific races may already be impacted. Senator Tillis is up for re-election in North Carolina but down by 6pts against Cunningham.(6)Now his campaign offices are closed and he can’t campaign for at least two weeks.
In addition to the impact to the SCOTUS Nomination, the infection of three GOP Senators and self-isolation of another who was exposed has cut the GOP Senate majority from 53-47 to 49-47. In response Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnel (R-Ky) requested the Senate go into pro-forma sessions for at least two weeks. A pro-forma session allows only a limited number of Senators to keep the Senate open and Committees to still function at the order of the Committee Chairperson – but no major business on the floor occurs. Senator Graham, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee indicated he would move forward with hearings beginning October 12th on the Supreme Court nomination. But no major votes – including on COVID19 related stimulus packages and permanent spending bills will be on hold until at least October 19th. Prior to President signed a continuing resolution allowing the government to function through December 11th. (10)
More to Follow
These impacts are just preliminary and may expand significantly or be contained to the above. We’re also only ~24hours into what is an exponential growth pattern with time delay of 4-10 days. The best time for the campaign to institute continuity measures to protect itself from a spreading infection would’ve been at any point from February up through last Friday. Now? The President’s campaign is in the predicament of being a week behind the spread. We probably won’t know until the Sunday or Monday how many will test positive, but that’s already baked in. The measures described above can’t be taken retroactively. The Coronagret is going to be real on this one.
Confirmed Positive or Exposed & Self-Isolating
|Name & Positive Status||Position||Status||Potential Impact|
|Donald Trump (POS)||President of the United States||Released from Hospital under observation at White House||Continuity of Government, Continuity of Campaign, Presidential Election|
|Mark Milley, John Hyten, James McConville, David Berger, Michael Gilday, Charles Brown, John Raymond, Daniel Hokanson (NEG)||Joint Chiefs of Staff incl Chairman and Vice Chairman||All working remotely except for General Berger USMC after exposure to Vice Commandant Ray USCG. Currently testing negative.||Continuity of Government, National Security|
|Melania Trump (POS)||First Lady of the United States||Quarantined in White House||Presidential Election|
|Hope Hicks (POS)||Senior White House Advisor||Quarantined at Home||Continuity of Government, Continuity of Campaign|
|Stephen Miller (POS)||Senior White House Advisor||Unknown||Continuity of Government, Continuity of Campaign|
|Kayleigh McEany (POS)||White House Press Secretary||Quarantined at Home||Continuity of Government, Continuity of Campaign, Presidential Election|
|Chad Gilmartin (POS)||Principal Assistant Press Secretary||Quarantined at Home||Continuity of Government, Continuity of Campaign|
|Karoline Leavitt (POS)||Assistant Press Secretary||Quarantined at Home||Continuity of Government, Continuity of Campaign|
|Jayna McCarron (POS)||US Coast Guard Aide to the President||Continuity of Government|
|Unidentified Military Personnel (POS)||President’s Valet|
|Charles Ray (POS)||Admiral, Vice Commandant of the Coast Guard||Continuity of Government|
|Bill Steipen (POS)||Presidential Election Campaign Manager||Quarantined at Home||Continuity of Campaign, Presidential Election|
|Ronna McDaniel (POS)||RNC Chairwoman||Quarantined at Home||Continuity of Campaign, Presidential Election|
|Thom Tillis (POS)||Senator (R), NC, on Judiciary Committee & up for Election||Quarantined at Home||SCOTUS Nomination, Senate Election|
|Mike Lee (POS)||Senator (R), UT, on Judiciary Committee||Quarantined at Home||SCOTUS Nomination|
|Ron Johnson (POS)||Senator (R), WI||Quarantined at Home||Senate|
|Ben Nassee (NEG)||Senator (R), Nebraska on Judiciary Committee||Tested Negative but Working Remotely||SCOTUS Nomination|
|James Lankford (NEG)||Senator (R), OK||Tested Negative but Working Remotely||Senate|
|John Jenkins (POS)||President of Notre Dame||Quarantined at Home|
|Chris Christie (POS)||Presidential Debate Preparation||Under Observation at Hospital||Presidential Election|
|Nick Luna (POS)||Presidential Attendant||Unknown|
|11 Unidentified Persons (POS)||Debate Preparation Staff, WH Staff, Media||Unknown||Continuity of Government, Continuity of Campaign, Presidential Election|
|3 Persons (POS)||Journalists||Unknown|