...and some experts say they’re probably right.
Top Pentagon officials on Friday morning moved quickly to dispel fears that President Donald Trump’s positive COVID-19 diagnosis has put the United States at greater risk from attack by foreign adversaries or required any emergency shifts in the U.S. defense posture.
Alarmist and inaccurate reports that the United States had launched nuclear command-and-control planes in connection with Trump’s Thursday diagnosis quickly proliferated on Twitter, while on cable networks and news sites, national security analysts said the diagnosis put the United States into “uncharted territory” and “deep into the danger zone.”
“There’s been no change to DoD alert levels,” top Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said in a statement issued Friday morning. “The U.S. military stands ready to defend our country and interests. There’s no change to the readiness or capability of our armed forces. Our national command and control structure is in no way affected by this announcement.”
Hoffman also denied reports that the E-6B TACAMO aircraft placed on alert status were related to the diagnosis. According to U.S. Strategic Command, which has authority over the country’s nuclear arsenal, the flights were part of pre-planned missions and the timing was “purely coincidental,” Hoffman said.
But the panic exposed a brittle national confidence in the nation’s political and defense resilience amid an increasingly chaotic and frightening year. Even as White House officials insisted that Trump was experiencing only “mild” symptoms and that he would continue to carry out his duties as president “without disruption,” analysts raised a host of concerns: That the command and control of America’s nuclear deterrent would break down. That adversaries, perceiving the United States as vulnerable and distracted, would take aggressive action against U.S. interests. That Trump would mislead the public about the severity of his illness.
“It seems like a uniquely American pathology to think that the president is suddenly sick and now some unnamed adversaries around the world are going to try something,” said Stephen Wertheim, the deputy director of research and policy at the Quincy Institute and a scholar of foreign relations and the international order at Columbia University.
On a practical level, the fear stems from concerns that the coronavirus will run rampant throughout the White House — the Trump administration is notoriously averse to masks and other basic precautions that its CDC says will stop the spread — sickening top officials and leaving the top levels of U.S. government rudderless and exposed. So far, there’s little indication that is happening. Vice President Mike Pence and his wife Karen have both tested negative since Trump’s test results were revealed. Defense Secretary Mark Esper is out of the country and has tested negative, as has Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley. Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger, Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett, Chief of Staff Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown, and the Space Force’s Chief of Space Operations Gen. Jay Raymond have all repeatedly tested negative over the past week.
Wertheim called the response to the president’s diagnosis “the latest episode in the story” of an America concerned about its role on the international stage. Although they have different diagnoses and prescriptions, both the left and the right have claimed that America’s standing in the world has been diminished over the past several decades. Trump ran on the idea that the world no longer “respected” America, while Democratic candidate Joe Biden has claimed that it is Trump’s presidency that has damaged American standing among allies. And there is no challenging the fact that polling shows international opinion of the United States has plummeted since the outbreak of the coronavirus. Combined with a host of frightening domestic experiences — ongoing unrest over racial injustice across the country, an economic crisis and a mounting death toll from the pandemic — that “crisis of nerves,” Wertheim said, is the perfect petri dish for a frightened response to the president’s diagnosis.
Several former defense officials argued on Friday that the U.S. national security architecture — including the nuclear command-and-control elements of that system — are resilient enough to withstand a moderately ill president, or even one who becomes incapacitated.
“The national security communications infrastructure is designed to be both static and portable,” said Mick Mulroy, a former Pentagon and CIA official turned security analyst for ABC News. “Unless symptoms are severe enough for the commander and chief to be incapacitated, it would not require a change of the chain of command.”
“It is unlikely that any adversary would use this as an opportunity to test us. If they did we would pass the test,” Mulroy said.
Others were more blunt.
“Stop promoting hysteria & disinformation,” tweeted Amber Smith, a former Pentagon public affairs outreach official under Trump, responding to several media stories exploring the national security threat of the president’s diagnosis.
“The US national security apparatus keeps a close eye on adversaries 24/7 365 regardless of if POTUS has COVID, the flu, an election/campaign, involved in other wars, etc. Every measure is in place for almost every contingency imaginable,” she said.
If there is a place where the threat to the United States as a result of the president’s diagnosis is very real, many analysts said, it’s in the realm of information warfare. Russia has already sought to exploit Trump’s diagnosis in their propaganda efforts — and, of course, the breaking news of the diagnosis sparked what former FBI special agent Clint Watts called “a nuclear information bomb [to explode] on social media” in an interview with the Washington Post. In a list of potential “disinformation disasters” Watts compiled in July, he predicted that in the event of a positive diagnosis by either 2020 election candidate, “surely we’d see stories alleging a political party’s replacing a candidate without a voting process, the substitution made by elites instead of voters … the list conspiracies could go on for pages. Americans would flock to COVID-19 conspiracies of elite control, further degrading the authority of U.S. institutions.”
The U.S. military is increasingly aware of the need to operate, compete and deter adversaries in the information warfare domain. A top special operations official on Friday told reporters that the Pentagon had begun to shift its focus away from the counterterrorism missions of the past two decades and towards grayzone operations that prioritize information warfare tactics.
“You’ll see, hopefully, those budgets ramp up [including] distinct information operations capabilities,” said Joe Francescon, deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations and combating terrorism.
Other presidents have been sickened while in office before. On three occasions, presidents have invoked the 25th Amendment to turn over their powers to the vice president during medical procedures; Presidents Reagan and George W. Bush both briefly ceded their powers to the vice president to undergo colonoscopies. Woodrow Wilson was sickened during the influenza epidemic in 1918, while in Paris for talks on ending the Great War. He was so ill that deputies were forced to take over his meetings in the interim, and although he eventually made a full recovery, he succumbed to a devastating stroke only months later.
But although academics can debate counterfactuals — how history might have been changed had Wilson not been incapacitated during such a crucial moment in the Paris Peace Conference — there aren’t any specific events on the world stage historians can point to and say, “This happened because Wilson was sick.”
The same holds true for the period during which British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was in the ICU for COVID-19, Wertheim said.
“I struggle to think about incidents where the [U.S.] president’s incapacitation had a tangible effect on foreign policy,” he said.