Trump immediately recognized how the “enemy” could derail the plan. On Friday, Graham said Trump asked him about Barrett and the Senator assured him “we’re moving on.”
Finally, Graham dealt with his own re-election. The South Carolina Senator, known to refer to Trump as a “total idiot” in 2015, has become a Trump loyalist for the past two years to fend off the GOP’s primary challengers. It worked. He easily secured his party’s nomination only to be pushed into a competitive general election against a well-funded and gifted Democratic candidate, Jaime Harrison made the race competitive. The two men had discussed Saturday night and Graham was still trying to understand how it was going.
Graham is still preferred to win, but the fact that a South Carolina Democrat is within striking distance of victory underscores how fragile the GOP Senate majority is.
While Graham was speaking, Trump appeared on a television screen in slow motion video that pinned him in the back seat of a black Suburban to thank the supporters who had gathered outside Walter Reed Hospital.
“He had like five presidencies if you think about it,” said Graham. After each there was a “reset”. He mentioned the Russia investigation, impeachment, the pandemic outbreak and now Trump’s own infection. Technically, that’s four – the recession could easily be added on – but the Senator’s point is valid: cataclysmic news events that might define presidential office come and go in the Trump era, and it’s not always clear what the lasting impact is will have.
Trump’s Republican critics have long argued that he was a virus that infected their party and would eventually destroy it. Trump’s skeptics, who became supporters and could describe most of Washington’s Republicans, made a different calculation: if the worst elements of Trump could be included, Republicans could keep a Democrat out of the White House, lock in a majority in the Supreme Court, and protect their redoubt in the Senate. Even before Trump was diagnosed, the cost of the deal with Trump was starting to look high. But the way to get through Barrett and keep the Senate and even the White House was hardly insurmountable.
That an actual virus has now infected Trump, his wife, his campaign manager, the head of the RNC, several advisors, and three senators – many of them at a celebration of Barrett’s nomination – and has thrown all three of the GOP’s 2020 goals into chaos an act that would be dismissed by any writer as a little too on the nose.
“Trump did more to derail the Barrett nomination than any Democrat,” said a dejected former senior White House official. “You’re screwing, that’s for sure.”
As bleak as the exercise is, Republicans across Washington are trying to play off the policy of the president’s illness. “I’m not sure how that plays,” said Graham. “I hope the president makes a full and quick recovery.” He noted that several world leaders have recovered from coronavirus without major disruptions and that Woodrow Wilson has contracted Spanish flu (although it did after his re-election).
Republicans’ thinking about the possible scenarios they might face in the next few weeks ranges from that could actually help Trump to We are facing a party-wide catastrophe.
Graham, always an optimist, is in the former camp.
“This is a chance for him, frankly, to speak on the human side: ‘This is tough, this is tough, we’re going to make it,'” he said. “If he gets out of this a little humiliated and focuses on speeding up vaccines and trying to reopen the country safely, then he’ll probably be fine.”
In the videos and statements he posted over the weekend, Trump was already trying to reformulate his illness in a way that was consistent with Graham’s recommendations.
“We are going to defeat this coronavirus or whatever you want to call it, and we are going to beat it out loud,” he said said on Saturday. “If you look at the therapeutics I’m taking right now, some of them and others are coming out soon that are honestly like miracles.”
Other Republicans float the idea that illness could spark a wave of empathy for the president. “If he returns to the White House and is considered fully recovered in 10 or two weeks, he will debate or be on the road again. I think that could be positive,” a Republican close to the president said. “I think it could make him more human and he can relate to the 7 million people who have coped with it.”
A close relative of the empathy argument is that defeating the virus could serve to underscore another alleged Trump trait: his manhood. “I think the president’s strongest attribute has always been his strength,” said Christopher Ruddy, a friend of Trump and CEO of Newsmax. Even if people disagree with him here and there on questions: “They like that he is strong and I think we see this during the Covid, he shows strength.”
Other Republicans, used to seeing Trump slip out of hairy situations that would destroy most politicians – the Access Hollywood tape, impeachment – practically yawned at the turn of events. “We saw this over and over again,” said a White House official, discussing whether this would pass. “I don’t know if that would be any different, but we’ll see.”
On the other side of the spectrum, many Republicans said the reckless way Trump traveled, held large rallies and refused to consistently wear a mask or encourage his followers to consider it disastrous.
“Today the election seems to be over,” said a seasoned Republican strategist, who, like others in the party, asked for anonymity in order to speak openly. “The polls have been going down all over the place all last week, it just feels like the end is near. And I don’t know what to do to rehabilitate him until he’s better. There are too many seniors who believe he is irresponsible and it all started when he politicized the coronavirus. It started in April and May but now it’s really at its peak. “
A senior Republican Congressional official spoke for many, arguing that the weekend’s treatment of the problem was “incredibly worrying,” but that it was too early to assess whether the problem was Trump’s re-election, Barrett’s nomination, or control over the GOP over the problem further endangers Senate.
“Do people show sympathy because he’s sick and trying to fight his way through?” he asked. “Or they say, ‘You are the President and if you had taken precautions there was no way you would have gotten sick.’ If it says, “You are inconsiderate and this is the metaphor for how inconsiderate he was,” then we are facing a tsunami. But it is too early. “
The official added a caveat, a scenario he believed would destroy the GOP on November 3rd.
“When the White House lied about the timeline and he went to events and was with people who knew he was positive,” he said. “I think that’s the biggest thing that would resonate with normal people about his irresponsibility – if he put other people in danger.”
He added, “That could turn this into a death spiral.”