Newsletter: The October surprise of the 2020 campaign

President Trump walks to Marine One before leaving the White House on Friday.
(AFP/Getty Images)

In the chaotic series of events surrounding President Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis can be found almost every element of the turbulent, acrimonious politics of this moment in U.S. history.

Fights over basic facts. Political weaponizing of public health recommendations. Refusing to provide basic levels of public transparency and accountability. A federal government that has struggled to project calm, not calamity.

The idea of an “October surprise” is one of the more hackneyed ideas in politics — a vestige of an era where a surprise revelation could sway enough undecided voters to change the outcome of an election.

But the surprise this time didn’t upend the campaign as much as it confirmed for voters the central premise: a president who hasn’t seemed to take the dangers of the coronavirus seriously enough.


His, by now, familiar mixed signals on masks and testing were gone by the time a short video appeared on his Twitter account on Sunday.

“It’s been a very interesting journey,” Trump said. “I learned a lot about COVID.”

The president’s health is shaping up to be an October surprise like none other, a symbol of his personal and political struggle with a public health emergency that now dominates the national conversation with only four weeks until election day.

Trump: truth or consequences

The events of the weekend were a confusing swirl of partial pieces of information and Trump’s insistence that he’s quickly getting better.

His temperature may have gone down, as his physician insisted over the weekend, but he still feverishly sought to downplay the situation’s severity — culminating in an impromptu outing on Sunday to wave to supporters gathered outside Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

My colleague David Lauter summed up the show of stamina this way: “Trump’s brief drive-by in a sealed vehicle to wave to his supporters outside the hospital put his Secret Service detail at risk. The president’s main political liability is that voters don’t think he takes the disease seriously.”

Unhelpful, too, was the muddled message delivered by the president’s physician, Dr. Sean Conley. Much of Saturday seemed consumed by Conley’s changing story on how long Trump had known he was COVID-19 positive. Sunday didn’t get much better, after Conley made opaque comments about there having been “expected findings” when asked about tests on the president’s lungs and that he would have to “check with the nursing staff” for details on Trump using supplemental oxygen.


To some, it was a reminder of Trump’s own flexible relationship with the truth while in office. “The chickens,” said GOP communications strategist Kevin Madden, “are coming home to roost.”

Meanwhile, our Times team has taken a look at how the president might have contracted COVID-19. And many of those who have been with Trump or at events at the White House have announced they, too, are infected with the virus.

Washington’s coronavirus outbreak

— Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie announced Saturday he was checking himself into a hospital after being diagnosed with COVID-19.

— Three Minnesota congressmen are facing backlash for taking a commercial flight home from Washington, D.C., just two days after they shared Air Force One with Trump.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced Saturday that the Senate will not return to session until Oct. 19 after three lawmakers tested positive for the coronavirus.

— Republicans pledged to plow ahead with the confirmation of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court despite Trump’s diagnosis and the potential for an outbreak among their ranks.

— Former acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe will not testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, citing news that two members of the panel have tested positive for the coronavirus.

— In California’s Trump Country, supporters are struggling to process the president having COVID-19.

— New Jersey state health officials have contacted more than 200 people who attended a campaign fundraiser at the Trump National Golf Course in Bedminster hours before the president announced he had COVID-19.

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Biden plays catch-up in Nevada

With Joe Biden announcing on Sunday that he had tested negative for the coronavirus, his attention remained on the campaign — including the effort to win over voters in Nevada.

For months, Democrats failed to conduct the intensive voter registration and face-to-face conversations that helped flip the state in the late 2000s from red to blue.

Although Democrats say they’re making up for lost time — using measures that ensure it’s safe again to knock on doors and finding creative means of engaging voters on social media and other outlets — they also say the contest is closer in Nevada than is comfortable.

National lightning round

— The Supreme Court opens a new term on Monday and within weeks is set to hear cases on healthcare and religion that may give a preview of how the conservative majority will wield its power.

— Voters awaiting results in some key presidential battleground states on election night should be prepared to keep waiting, thanks to COVID-19 era obstacles that will slow the count.

— “Examine your heart”: Healing from turmoil, Wisconsin voters have a message for America.

In the mail: 21 million ballots

There is no longer a single day on which ballots are mailed to voters across California, though most of the 21.3 million ballots for this election will be in the mail on Monday.

Never before has every registered voter received a ballot in the mail, but these are unusual times. The hard part, though, may not be the distribution and collection but rather the education — there are millions of Californians who have stuck to voting in person even as the majority of ballots in almost every election over the past decade were cast somewhere other than a polling place.

And the Trump-generated furor over voting by mail and the U.S. Postal Service is upending the conventional wisdom, said longtime election data analyst Paul Mitchell.

“We believe there’s actually going to be more Democratic voters returning their ballots early than in prior years,” he said about the early weeks. Republicans, meanwhile, may follow the president’s lead and show up more often to vote in person.

“That idea that there’s this polarization about election mechanics, and that people will take actions to be on ‘team blue’ or ‘team red,’ is just the weirdest part of this election cycle.”

Today’s essential California politics

— Walt Disney Co. Executive Chairman Bob Iger has resigned from Gov. Gavin Newsom’s COVID-19 economic task force, an abrupt public confirmation of the growing tensions over California’s reluctance to allow theme parks to reopen.

— A federal appeals court decided 2 to 1 last week to uphold Newsom’s restrictions on indoor worship during the pandemic.

— The governor vetoed a bill that would have further protected journalists covering demonstrations from physical or verbal obstruction by a law enforcement officer.

— California became the first state government in the country last week to adopt a law to study and develop proposals for potential reparations to descendants of enslaved people and those affected by slavery.

— Many state-based corporations will have to increase the diversity of their boards of directors under a new law signed by Newsom.

— Labor unions and liberal activists criticized Newsom’s decision to veto a bill that would have provided sweeping new labor protections for workers laid off during the pandemic.

— California needs a major tax system overhaul, writes columnist George Skelton, and tinkering with Proposition 13 won’t cut it.

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