No one likes to hear “I told you so,” certainly not an incumbent president weeks before Election Day -- and most especially not from the rival nominee. For now, there is only an implied rebuke that President Trump took a much more cavalier attitude than Joe Biden toward basic health precautions during the coronavirus pandemic. But how much longer can it go unsaid?
The president --who was being taken to Walter Reed medical center Friday evening for what the White House said was a precautionary measure -- has repeatedly poked fun at the Democratic challenger, the media, and plenty of others for taking the precautions endorsed by top health officials to socially distance and wear a mask. He openly mocked Biden for wearing one to their debate on Tuesday. But Biden may be getting the last laugh after Trump tested positive for the coronavirus on Friday.
How much longer will Democrats hold their tongues?
Team Biden has been considering that question in the hours following the president’s seismic news announcement. Shortly before 1 a.m., Trump tweeted that he and the first lady had tested positive, as have more than 7.3 million Americans before him. The Democratic campaign had to make a decision: Would they shame their opponent, who only three days earlier mirthlessly needled Biden for wearing “the biggest mask I’ve ever seen,” even though the two were more than six feet apart.
Isn’t it only fair? Eventually it might be, but in the first hours after the announcement, Biden stuck to the high road. As of late Friday afternoon, there has been no “I told you so.” His campaign has only said two things on the record. Both came in tweets. The first was from the vice president, his wife Jill Biden and their family, who wished the president and the first lady “a swift recovery.” They offered their prayers for the first family, not a rebuke.
Some Republicans still saw a subtle slight because Biden, in their estimation, was silent for too long. He passed along his best wishes eight hours after Trump broke the news. Several hours earlier, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson – who had a bout with COVID-19 himself -- had wished his U.S. counterpart a “speedy recovery,” and Russian President Vladimir Putin had done the same, expressing “sincere support in this difficult moment.”
Before Friday, Democrats never passed up an opportunity to slam Trump for his handling of the pandemic. "It is what it is,” Biden said on the debate stage, parroting the president’s earlier remarks about COVID-19, “because you are who you are.” There was no such lecture Friday.
A second tweet, Biden’s only other public statement on the matter, reported only that he and Jill had negative for COVID-19, while expressing hope that news of Trump’s positive test serves as a reminder to all Americans “to wear a mask, social distance and wash your hands.”
Not everyone was willing to take the high road. Actor Tom Arnold decided to “dox” White House aide Hope Hicks, who had tested positive on Wednesday during a campaign trip to Minnesota. The anti-Trump celebrity shared her phone number on Twitter with his more than 266,000 followers. “Silent thoughts & prayers aren't enough for national treasure Hope Hicks," he wrote in a now-deleted tweet. "She needs to hear them."
Other unelected figures on the left seized on the moment as the ultimate Biden vindication for his cautious, locked-down approach to the virus after enduring months of Trump’s mockery.
A video mash-up of several nasty moments in which Trump degraded mask wearers, and Biden himself, circulated widely on Twitter. In addition, many Democratic operatives gleefully shared posts noting that Trump was canceling meetings with other political leaders because of his diagnosis and highlighting events that Trump attended and all the participants who would now require contract-tracing.
Hillary Clinton’s former foreign policy spokesman tweeted that “[Speaker] Pelosi’s team should have put out a statement saying she was safe cuz she hasn’t talked to Trump since October of 2019.”
Other more prominent Democratic leaders were more direct.
"If this makes more Americans realize that Trump has been lying to them about the coronavirus, and if this puts the brakes on Republican attempts to steal a Supreme Court seat then the American people would be well served,” Caitlin Lang of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee told RCP.
News that the president tested positive has ripped through Washington, sending politicos scrambling to look up everything from presidential line of succession to where they might get their own COVID test. Trump’s tweet announcing the news quickly became his most widely viewed and retweeted social media post, a grim achievement for the Twitter-addicted executive.
The sober announcement put an immediate halt to talk of future debates between Trump and Biden. It also grounded every member of the first family -- at least temporarily. Each of the president’s adult children attended the first debate. None wore masks. The Trump campaign, meanwhile, postponed all events until further notice.
More unfortunate news followed. Sen. Mike Lee, a prominent Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, announced that he also tested positive. This prompted new calls from Democratic leaders to postpone the confirmation hearings for Amy Coney Barrett, Trump’s choice to fill Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s open seat on the Supreme Court.
A senior Judiciary aide told RCP that there would be “no delay” and that the committee would move “with full steam ahead,” remarks echoed by Sen. Lindsey Graham. The committee chairman and close Trump confidant said that the two had spoken earlier in the morning. The president’s first question? According to Graham, "He asked me about the hearings.
I said, we're on track, we're in a good spot. She's going to get confirmed," he told CNN on Friday. "He was in a good mood, very focused on getting Amy Barrett through the Senate."
It may only be a matter of time before the Biden campaign pounces on the now-infected president. But taking a step back is the exact right thing to do in the moment, according to Jim Manley, a longtime Democratic communications strategist who worked as a top aide to former Sens. Harry Reid and the late Ted Kennedy.
“The Biden folks should leave that kind of stuff [chastising the president] to folks like me – and they should focus on the stuff they need to. The contrast stories are going to write themselves,” he told RCP.
“They played this exactly right. You can’t win against the virus. Trump thought he was the exception to the rule. He just found out he’s not. The virus is going to get you if you don’t watch out and play by the rules.”
While Biden held his fire, top Democratic leaders have been happy to lecture Trump on their own for disregarding face masks and allowing attendees and aides at the White House and his private properties to wear them.
After quickly wishing Trump and Melania a “speedy recovery” and offering prayers for the first family’s health and safety, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer called for more robust contact tracing at the White House and in Congress. In particular, he asked for a closer look at anyone who came into contact with Barrett at the Rose Garden ceremony where Trump announced her as his pick nearly a week ago.
“What happened to President Trump is a reminder of why the whole country, including senators and staff, must follow the protocols laid out by the CDC and public health officials,” Schumer said in a statement. “When you ignore the science, you don’t wear a mask, and you don’t follow social distancing guidelines, it puts you and everyone around you at risk. Following science is a must.”
Pelosi, second in line to the presidency, was more judicious but to the point. “Hopefully this will be a message to the rest of the country. … You have to wear your mask,” she said.
Expanding her comments on MSNBC, she called the COVID diagnosis of the first family a sad occasion but also a wake-up call: “Maybe this will be the moment where people will say – ‘Okay, mask, distance, sanitation, tracing.’”