President Donald Trump waves to supporters as he briefly rides by in the presidential motorcade in front of Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where he is being treated for the coronavirus in Bethesda, Maryland, Oct. 4, 2020.  

COVID-19 in the West Wing means instability amid fraught election, analyst says

The coronavirus has sidelined President Donald Trump from at least some of his duties. Garrett Graff, a writer and national security analyst, spoke to The World's host Marco Werman about the national security implications.

The World

President Donald Trump waves to supporters as he briefly rides by in the presidential motorcade in front of Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where he is being treated for the coronavirus in Bethesda, Maryland, Oct. 4, 2020.  

Cheriss May/Reuters 

Since President Donald Trump and the first lady both tested positive for the coronavirus last week, the news cycle has been in a tailspin. 

The coronavirus has sidelined the commander in chief from at least some of his duties. So, it makes sense to ask whether China, Russia or other actors that don’t have the United States' best interests in mind might take advantage of this precarious moment for their own gain.

Garrett Graff, a writer and national security analyst, has been thinking a lot about that. He spoke to The World's host Marco Werman about how foreign adversaries may take advantage of the US in this moment.

Related: Former CDC head: COVID-19's spread in White House shows 'testing does not replace safety measures'

Marco Werman: The commander in chief is in quarantine — well, a sort of quarantine — we all know he had an outing in a motorcade on Sunday. What does his condition mean for the military chain of command and how decisions get made about potential national security threats?

Garrett Graff: You see various aides and various members of the National Security Council testing positive for COVID-19, isolating themselves, being treated themselves, or the president is physically unable to be in a room with his top military and government officials. And frankly, this is a West Wing that as of today is simply concerned with its own health. They physically don't know who among them is sick and how far this virus has spread in their own ranks. That's a recipe for instability and uncertainty. That is the type of opportunity foreign adversaries would normally try to take advantage of even before you begin to factor in that we are just weeks away from what was already promising to be a fraught, and potentially challenging, election.

Do you have a clear sense of when President Trump's most recent national security briefing was?

Presumably, he is continuing to get briefings all the time. If Mike Pence actually does have to step in at some point under what's called the acting president procedures, and powers officially transferred to him using the 25th Amendment — let's say if the president's condition worsens, or he undergoes a medical treatment requiring anesthesia — one of the oddities is that actually, vice presidents are typically even better informed about US intelligence than presidents because they have more time to spend receiving intelligence briefings.

So, whether it's at Walter Reed or possibly soon at the White House, who is briefing him? Is it [National Security Advisor] Robert O'Brien, and are they socially distanced?

The president's intelligence briefing generally takes place now on an iPad. And so, it would be relatively easy to continue that briefing in a socially distanced way. I mean, there's a much larger issue that throughout this administration, the president has actually not paid that much attention to his briefings, that they have been sort of dumbed down and had to be rewritten with more graphics and less information because of how boring the president finds most of the routine intelligence briefings that he receives.

Yeah, I was going to ask you about that. And whether because of what you just pointed out, much actually changes right now.

Yeah, it's hard to say how much is really changing in this moment. Except this is just a massive distraction. It's easy to forget how fraught and challenging this year has already been — as you have seen, China has used the pandemic as cover to move against the freedom and independence of Hong Kong. Azerbaijan and Armenia are engaged in an outright war right now heavily influenced by regional powers, Russia and Turkey. India and China, 2-billion-person, nuclear-armed countries, are continuing to have border clashes that have erupted in fighting and casualties for the first time since the 1970s. There's a lot of stuff going on in the world right now. And having the West Wing and having the National Security Council focused hour by hour on how healthy they are themselves — that's a problem for national security and stability around the world. 

I've got to ask you about the nuclear football — the briefcase with the information for a president to launch a nuclear attack. It was suggested on Friday, as I watched the president take Marine One to Walter Reed, that one of his aides was carrying the nuclear football. Is that correct? And does it remain with him in quarantine, in that room at Walter Reed?

Perhaps not physically in the room. But the nuclear football, which is carried by a rotating set of five military aides, is never far from him physically. It rides with him in an elevator if he's in an elevator. It is in the third golf cart behind the president's golf cart if he is on the course. It is always close by.

So, if the president's health improves — I mean, he's still been taking some medications that have known side effects, including making your brain kind of hazy: dexamethasone. And there's also the long term impact of COVID-19. How would it be determined if the president was not cognitively up to the task of being commander in chief?

We don't have a good mechanism politically, militarily, legally, constitutionally, to deal with a president who is not mentally fit to be president. And in fact, the 25th Amendment, which does lay out a procedure for removing the president with the ascent of the vice president and a majority of the Cabinet, that's a pretty blunt instrument and a politically fraught one to deal with mental instability and not physical disability.

Little surprise that lately, a lot of us find ourselves with bouts of insomnia. What's crossing your mind on these recent nights that you can't sleep?

For me, it is all about this month's election security, not just in terms of the president and his health, but also the questions that he has been trying to inject into the process over recent weeks about the legitimacy of the election itself and putting out the message that if he loses, it is because the election has been stolen from him. You know, that basic premise of a peaceful transition of power has long been a bedrock of American democracy. And this president openly questioning it as recently as this past weekend is very troubling for the groundwork that it is laying for what might happen in the hours after the polls close on Nov. 3.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. 

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