Just two days after the first presidential debate, which took place at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump are under quarantine at the White House after testing positive for coronavirus late Thursday night.
For now, both are experiencing "mild symptoms," according to White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows — but the prospect of a sick commander-and-chief has nonetheless raised serious concerns about continuity of government, national security, and the upcoming election.
"What we need to realize here is that anytime the president of the United States is potentially incapacitated it runs a national security risk for the United States as a whole," Lauren Baer, a former senior advisor in the State Department who worked on the Ebola response, told Cheddar.
The former Obama official noted that America's "foes," such as China or Russia, could take advantage of the perceived vulnerability to "sow disarray" — though she would not speculate about particular threats.
As long as he is not incapacited by the virus, however, the president should be more than capable of leading the nation while under quarantine.
"The president of the United States is capable of conducting his job — or her job potentially — from anywhere at any time," Baer said. "My concern stems from whether the coronavirus might potentially incapacitate the president or other senior administration officials."
Indeed, White House staff often work in close corridors across a wide network of agencies and departments that span the nation's capital. To ensure the continuity of government in the unlikely event of the president becoming incapacitated, she added, it's crucial that the Trump administration take steps to halt the spread among senior officials.
Some former Obama officials stressed that concerns over the continuity of government might be premature, given the constitutional backstops in place.
"I don't think we should anticipate any problems in terms of continuity of power, because the 25th Amendment is pretty clear about how the process should work," said David Tafuri, a former State Department official and foriegn policy advisor for Obama.
Notably, Vice President Mike Pence tested negative for the virus after Trump announced his COVID-19 status.
Bina Venkataraman, who advised President Obama's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology on the Ebola epidemic, echoed that there are clear protocols in place if Trump can no longer govern.
"There's not a reason to panic at present," she said.
What makes the situation more complicated, she added, is the upcoming election and how the president chooses to continue his campaign. She pointed out that one "silver lining" could be that Trump no longer holds mass gathering or indoor rallies for the remainder of the election.
"Americans should hope that the president is now willing to send a stronger public health message, given that it's affected his own health," she said. "It shouldn't have taken that, of course — more than 207,000 Americans have died — but it would be great to hear the president giving a stronger message on the need to wear masks, on the need to social distance."
There are some instances of world leaders getting the virus and still refusing to change tack. Venkataraman pointed to the case of Brazillian president Jair Bolsanaro, who after contracting coronavirus went on to continue downplaying the severity of the pandemic.
In the U.S. Trump's diagnosis could disrupt the final run up to the election, particularly the remaining presidential debates, but how voters ultimately respond is anyone's guess.
"I think it will be disruptive to his campaign in the short-term," Tafuri said. "It's very hard to predict what impact this will have on voters. Obviously there will be some voters who hold it against Trump that he didn't do a better job of protecting our country from COVID-19. On the other hand, if he handles it well, perhaps the country will have sympathy for him."
"As with anything with Trump it's very hard to predict how he will handle this," he added.