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Effects Of Trump's Positive Coronavirus Test On National Security


There's no indication that President Trump's positive coronavirus test has had any immediate impact on U.S. national security, but it does raise some practical questions. It also underscores America's troubled response to the virus, and it creates another moment of uncertainty in the Trump era. For more on this, we're joined by NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre.

Hi, Greg.


SHAPIRO: So from a national security perspective, how should people be looking at the president's illness?

MYRE: Well, as the White House staff has told us, the president has mild symptoms. He's at the residence. But he is giving direction to his staff, according to the White House. But in this condition, it does raise some practical questions. How does he get his security briefing? He likes to have that face-to-face, usually with several people that include the briefer and the CIA director, director of national intelligence. So, you know, he'd presumably have to get it by phone or video conference or reading the book that is prepared for him every day. If needed, how would he convene a meeting of the National Security Council or hold a meeting in the situation room? - so some of these practical questions that we haven't heard how they'll be worked out yet.

SHAPIRO: And the National Security Council, the situation room are just the tip of the spear. There is this massive apparatus underneath him, from the military to the national security agencies. What does this mean for all of them?

MYRE: So the Pentagon put out a statement today just saying it's business as usual. The spokesman, Jonathan Hoffman, said, quote, "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." We should also note that the defense secretary, Mark Esper, has been traveling in North Africa. He's continuing that trip as planned. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been in Europe. He's been flying on his way back today, also as planned. So they both seem to be signaling there's no immediate crisis - let's carry on; we know what we're doing.

SHAPIRO: And, of course, President Trump is not the first world leader to catch this disease. But how are other countries likely to interpret this development in the U.S.?

MYRE: Well, the U.S. stature and credibility really has taken some pretty big hits for the way that the country has handled the coronavirus the last seven months or so. The U.S. has the most cases, the most deaths. It's been unwilling to take the global leadership role that it's done so often in the past. Relations with allies have weakened in some cases. Some rivals seem more emboldened. Many countries are really asking, you know, is this the way that a superpower conducts itself? Is the U.S. competent? And this virus has been a challenge for every country, and the U.S. has fared poorly. And now the president, the people around him have been hit with it despite all the resources at their disposal.

SHAPIRO: Does the president's illness increase the likelihood that some foreign adversary might take some kind of aggressive action against the U.S.?

MYRE: Well, this is always a concern during election season and perhaps even more so now with Americans so focused on the events at home. You know, imagine you're a foreign leader, and you see the U.S. distracted with all these internal dramas - the president who's tested positive, an election a month away, a possible transition to a new administration if President Trump were to lose. So you may well think this is a good moment to act - and perhaps not something that's directed at the United States but something that you wouldn't want the U.S. to notice or respond to. We've certainly seen October surprises in previous elections, and this could increase the likelihood we'll see one this year.

SHAPIRO: And, Greg, this election season, you've been doing a lot of reporting on disinformation, conspiracy theories, the role of foreign countries in spreading them. And so does this news add to those concerns?

MYRE: Yes. I mean, anecdotally, we've already seen some things today - people online claiming the president's positive test isn't real or that it's being orchestrated to gain sympathy or being used to raise campaign funding. So we should certainly expect to see all sorts of false stories. And, of course, the president himself has downplayed the virus, mocked those wearing masks and suggested treatments that doctors rejected outright. So all this has contributed to a climate that makes it easier to spread bad information and help conspiracies take hold in this very volatile election season.

SHAPIRO: That is NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre.

Thanks, Greg.

MYRE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.