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President Trump's ailment signals a constitutional crisis

President Trump's ailment signals a constitutional crisis

President Trump exhibited all plausible symptoms of Covid-19 infections early in the last week, but he dismissed the advice of his health advisors and carried on business as usual. On Friday morning he developed high fever, severe coughing and shortness of breath so much so that the physicians at the White House administered oxygen to ease his level of discomfort. Since the intervention proved inadequate, the attending doctors and the senior staff at the White House persuaded him to move to the Walter Reed military hospital in Bethesda, Maryland. He was hospitalised and as expected people at home and abroad braced the news with considerable anxiety.

Trump's illness has profound ramifications for myriad reasons. He is the president of the United States. His first term comes to an end in three months time. He is the Republican Party's candidate in the upcoming presidential election to be held on November 3. Trump and his team have been on the campaign trail for the past six months. He is being challenged by the Democratic Party nominee Joe Biden, the former Vice President. Last week they had the first debate in Ohio. Though acrimonious, people could listen to both candidates about their future plans of actions. Since 1960 the presidential debates assumed an integral component of the election and the candidates from both political parties take it seriously. Infallible argument from the candidates leaves a lasting impression on the swing voters who don't vote on party lines and their votes turn out to be crucial in making a candidate victorious.

Trump's sudden illness has brought before the American people a host of complex issues. The election is only four weeks away. A Covid-19 infected person is supposed to observe quarantine for two to three weeks implying he/she should work in isolation, avoid gatherings and adhere to certain protocols including wearing masks and social distancing. These would preclude campaigning and addressing rallies by a person suffering from Covid-19 infections. Rigorous compliance of the protocols would disqualify Trump in attending the rallies in person. Failure to make robust campaign would significantly diminish the chance of getting re-elected.

The severity of Trump's illness remains opaque. The White House Physician Dr. Sean Conley said on Sunday, "I was trying to reflect the upbeat attitude that the team, the president, over the course of illness has had ... The fact of the matter is that he is doing very well." Dr. Conley declined to answer questions about Trump's lungs conditions, including whether there has been scarring or whether Trump has pneumonia. Shortly after Dr. Conley spoke, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows told reporters that Trump's "vitals over the last 24 hours were very concerting, and we are still not on a clear path to a full recovery." The conflicting accounts from very close circle of the president compounded confusion over the severity of Trump's illness.

Notwithstanding the secrecy and equivocating by the White House, it has been confirmed that Trump has been treated with a range of drugs and experimental therapeutics, including the steroid dexamethasone, the antiviral drug remdesivir and monocional antibodies that has not yet been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. He was twice put on supplemental oxygen on Friday and Saturday. Doctors confirmed on Monday that Trump would continue to receive the same treatment that is typically reserved for seriously ill coronavirus patients regardless of whether the drugs met FDA's approval.

Despite being categorised as seriously ill, Trump went out on Monday morning in a motorcade to greet his supporters assembled near the Walter Reed Military Hospital. As required, he was accompanied by secret service agents who ran the risk of being infected by a seriously ill president sitting next to some of them. After the motorcade, Trump announced that he would leave the hospital in the evening. Trump returned to the White House in the evening wearing mask, climbed upstairs and waved. He tweeted, "Don't be afraid of Covid. Don't let it dominate your life. We have developed under the Trump Administration, some really great drugs and knowledge. I feel better than I did 20 years ago."

It's incendiary to advise people not to be afraid of Covid-19 and not to let the deadly virus dominate their lives after Trump had received the most expensive and reserved drugs not available for other patients, and at a time when over 210,000 Americans have died, and more than 7.5 million people have been infected. Had the Trump Administration listened to the scientists and applied the protocols recommended by the Centre for Disease Control, the virus could have been brought under control and human tolls would not have been colossal.

Trump, in defiance of the physicians' recommendation, left the hospital and returned to the White House which is now a breeding ground of coronavirus. Though it is not revealed when Trump and his close associates got the virus, it is presumed that about two weeks ago Trump ceremonially announced in the Rose Garden Judge Amy Coney Barrett as his nominee to the Supreme Court. The event was attended by over 100 guests who did not wear masks nor observed social distancing and made the best opportunity for the virus to pervade amongst the elites. Among 100 staff working at the White House about 20 have been tested positive and placed on quarantine. Couple of Senators who have had contacts with the president and attended the Rose Garden event are now amongst the infected persons. As of Tuesday evening (October 6), the Pentagon announced top Army General Mark A. Milley, General Charles Brown, the chief of the staff of the Air Force and General John Hyten, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs went on voluntary quarantine. They had attended the Rose Garden on September 26.

The most compelling question is if Trump's health deteriorates in the coming days and if he is again hospitalised and placed on ventilation, how would the situation unfold. Section 1 under Article II of the American Constitution stipulates that in case of death of the president or inability to discharge the powers, the Vice President will assume the role of the President. The constitution, however, does not outline the steps needed to be taken in the event the president or one of the candidates in the presidential election dies or becomes incapacitated shortly before or after the election. The authors of the constitution left the issue for the posterity to address. Given the deep polarisation between the two political parties and their leaderships, it is difficult to comprehend how the members in the Congress would leave their differences behind and evolve an electoral trajectory to address the constitutional crisis. It should also be noted that electoral exercise has already begun in many states and about 4 million voters have already mailed their votes.

Trump had cast doubts on the legitimacy of the election and levelled unsubstantiated allegations that election held in 2018, where a good number of Democratic Party nominees got elected to the House of Representatives as well as in the Senate, was rigged. He predicted that the presidential election would also be rigged and warned that there is a very good possibility the matter would move to the Supreme Court. Trump and his party colleagues are, therefore, desperate and are in a hurry to get Congressional confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett in the Supreme Court.

Trump has resumed working at the White House and as usual he is sending instructions to his staff and making decisions. Physicians believe a person while receiving highest doses of steroid and antibiotics is unlikely to perform at his best capacity and runs the risk of taking decisions detrimental to national interest. On Tuesday evening Trump instructed the Secretary of Treasury to suspend the negotiation on "stimulus package" until after the election. This surprising decision stood in stark contrast with the recommendation of the Federal Reserve Chairman that stimulus package is urgently needed to sustain the recovery. When 28 million people have lost jobs and another 85,000 people are going to be laid off by the Airlines, Disney and other commercial outlets, Trump's denial of stimulus assistance to millions could not have been more poignant. In this hour of crisis, the Congress should recommission the National Security Council to guard the ailing president against making harmful decisions. The NSC was created during the World War II to assist ailing President Roosevelt and there was valid reason for it. The need of NSC appears more compelling now than anytime before.


Abdur Rahman Chowdhury is a former official of the United Nations. Darahman.Chowdhury@hotmail.com

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