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Shields and Brooks on Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis and the debate

Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week in politics, including President Trump’s COVID-19 infection and what it means for his campaign and the country, and how the first debate between Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden reflected on the candidates.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The president has tested positive for COVID, as we have been reporting. Millions of Americans are out of work. Two weeks ago, at this moment, Justice Ginsburg was still alive.

    It is a lot to process. Thankfully, we have the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That is syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist, David Brooks.

    So, hello to both of you.

    A lot has happened just in the last 24, 12 hours even.

    David, first of all, your reaction to this fast moving news that the president not only has tested positive, but he's now at Walter Reed Hospital?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, I was unnerved.

    I happened to be awake at 1:00 a.m. when I saw the tweet that he was infected. And we take umbrage at things he does. But I think the whole country was shocked and unnerved and saddened that he drew ill.

    And I looked at my Twitter feed, and people on the left, Chris Hayes, an MSNBC host, said he was praying for him. And people on the right were, obviously.

    And so he's a man. He's our president. And we need him to be healthy.

    And so, just a few minutes ago, on East Coast time, as we're talking, the White House released an 18-second video of Trump talking in the video, thanking people for their expressions of support. They released — they saw the video of him walking to the Marine One, the helicopter, on the way to Walter Reed. And it's comforting.

    It's comforting to see him in reasonably good shape. And so we're humans. And this has been such an emotionally exhausting year. And the accumulation of emotional trauma is just — we have got one more episode.

    I was thinking, man, October, it seems like it'll never end. And I realize it's October 2. So, a lot — it's been — it's just an emotional, gripping year.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It's been a whirlwind of — the likes of which I don't think any of us has seen.

    We have been looking at this video listening to David, but looking at this video of President Trump walking from the White House to get on Marine One, the helicopter.

    And, Mark, before I turn to you, we do have that 18-second message the president tweeted a moment ago. Let's listen to that. Watch it.

  • President Donald Trump:

    I want to thank everybody for the tremendous support.

    I'm going to Walter Reed Hospital. I think I'm doing very well. But we're going to make sure that things work out. The first lady is doing very well.

    So, thank you very much. I appreciate it. I will never forget it. Thank you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Mark, the president there speaking clearly. We — he looked like himself.

    But we are told that he's experienced fatigue, perhaps some temperature, other symptoms. He's already received an infusion of a special what they call cocktail of antibodies.

    But it is a moment, a sobering moment.

  • Mark Shields:

    Sobering moment, indeed, Judy.

    And it changes the political landscape of 2020 quite like no other event. And I think that's the reality.

    I think Joe Biden spoke for virtually all Americans when he said that both the president and the first lady are in his and Jill Biden's thoughts and prayers. And I think that's universal.

    But one can't escape the reality of the politics. The coronavirus is the election issue of 2020. It always has been. And it now returns center stage. And it is exactly the issue that the president did not want. He did not want the disease, obviously, personally, but he does not want this issue to dominate our politics.

    And I don't think there's any way from here on in that you escape that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Given what's going on, David — and, clearly, it's early. We don't know the course of the president's treatment, how he will do, how serious this case will be for him.

    But what does it look like could be the effect on the campaign?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, I — there was some thought that there would be some sympathy, people would rally around him, as happened to Boris Johnson when he got COVID very early in the pandemic. I think that's possible, but probably unlikely.

    I think it's unlikely because they — he made such a point of doing behavior that was risky. And, at this moment in particular, it looks cavalier. And especially for a president who has a public role to perform, it looks like not the best version of public service.

    So, I think people will say, he just didn't take this seriously. He was out there at that Amy Coney Barrett event, and people were hugging each other, and nobody was wearing masks. And we have seen that throughout the year.

    It also means he won't be campaigning for a little while. We don't know how long the recovery will last. It also means that there probably won't be a second debate.

    It also means that, as Mark said, COVID is once again at the top of everybody's mind. So, just in speaking in political terms, it's, I would say, very bad news for the Trump campaign.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Mark, how do you see the effect on the election, on the campaign?

  • Mark Shields:

    Well, I think, Judy, let's be very blunt.

    There is no Donald Trump campaign. Donald Trump is the Donald Trump campaign. It is his tweets, his rallies, his off-the-cuff, frequently given press comments, that is what has driven the narrative. And his narrative has been that: I am the president of unmatched peace and prosperity.

    It was a country under his administration that reached its lowest unemployment rate in 51 years, that he was reaching out to better relations with North Korea and for a while a rapport with China.

    All of that is — all of that has changed. And it's a different, different campaign. And it's — he tried changing the subject, whether it was to the fraudulent mail voting or whatever subject came to mind, as long as it wasn't coronavirus.

    And coronavirus now is central, dominant and inescapable.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, David, this comes just a few days after the debate, the first debate, or — we assume — we don't know whether there will be more, but a debate in which Donald Trump more than dominated.

    He overwhelmed that evening, Tuesday evening. Did it have an effect, do you think, on voters who still don't know what they're going to do on November 3?

  • David Brooks:

    It certainly did in my circles.

    Even among Trump supporters who are friends, they were devastated and shocked. Some of them are not on Twitter. They don't see a lot of that Twitter stuff. And, suddenly, they see this.

    I think it was one of the most important events of the campaign for this reason. People like me can sermonize about how, when you behave badly, when you destroy every norm of civility and decency, you corrode the world around you. You destroy the norms of standard behavior.

    The problem with people — when people like me sermonize about this is, it's an invisible process, and it's a slow corrosion.

    On debate night, the American people got to see in real time, with their own eyes, the way one man destroyed an American political institution, the presidential debate.

    And so that's just a clear example of the centrality of character and the centrality of decency and how what we saw, when you have bad character, frankly, and indecency, it has the explosive force of a howitzer. It just breaks things and makes people suffer.

    And that process, in my view, has been going on throughout the Trump presidency. But, here, it happened in real time right in front of everybody's eyes. So, I think it's an extremely significant event in the whole arc of the Trump presidency.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Mark, how much harm do you think that the debate did to the president's political fortunes and to the country?

  • Mark Shields:

    I think it was obviously — it was obviously his missed opportunity, Judy.

    His opportunity was to try and make the race into a referendum — rather, a choice between himself and Joe Biden. He brought all the attention, all the focus back to himself, made it a referendum on himself again. He was interrupted, by one count, Joe Biden, 120 times.

    David's absolutely right. He took an institution which had been a rather remarkable civic institution, criticized by some for not being sparkly enough or whatever else, but had been a remarkable moment, where, in every campaign, for 90 minutes, both candidates stood there and they defended and explained and answered questions and were held accountable, and we found out what sense they were.

    It was more than a travesty. It was a moment at which he brought all attention back to himself. He mocked Joe Biden on wearing a mask, which seems sadly ironic and poignant at this point.

    But I don't think there's any question that the two major events, the bookend events, of this campaign — now, I don't know what's going to happen tomorrow — but really happened this week. And they were the debate and the disease.

  • Judy Woodruff:


  • Mark Shields:

    And I think that — both of them.

    And in the final analysis, Judy, there have been four presidents reelected since Ronald Reagan. And, in each case, every one of them, by measurement of The Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, was personally liked.

    Donald Trump is the only American president seeking reelection who is personally unliked by 70 percent of his fellow Americans. There was nothing that he did Tuesday night in Cleveland that made him more likable to those Americans whose votes he needs.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    David, only about 30, 40 seconds left.

    But, in that time, how is Joe Biden doing in this campaign?

  • David Brooks:

    He's done a masterful job of holding his coalition together.

    I did not think he did particularly well in the debate. I thought his impromptu remarks were good, but his scripted remarks explaining health care were chaotic.

    So, I think he's done a very good job of not being Donald Trump. But he needs to work on a little of his performance, I would say.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, today, his message to the country about the president?

    OK. I'm told we need to go. And so I'm going to thank both of you.

    David Brooks, Mark Shields, thank you.

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