Now that the coronavirus has infected the president, at least three Republican senators and several other officials, American politics may not have been so disrupted since Confederates fired on Fort Sumter in Charleston, S.C., starting the Civil War in 1861. It is still far too early to know how seriously ill the president is and who else may be infected.
Conflicting reports over the president's condition raise profound questions as to the extent and seriousness of his illness. Immediately after the announcement of the president testing positive for coronavirus, the Internet, Twitter and social media erupted, challenging its veracity. Given the president's constant avoidance of truth and fact, 25,000 times or so, according to Washington Post fact checkers, can this White House be trusted to disclose the president's real condition?
Yet, the outlines for several possible outcomes are visible.
For the president -- and all wish him, the first lady and those infected a speedy recovery -- he can prove largely asymptomatic and return to full duty after testing negative. Once virus-free, he could use this exposure as the reason for transforming how the administration treats the disease, requiring not only masks and social distancing but producing an overall strategy for containing, mitigating and preventing the further spread. And he would have to admit that his administration did not rate an "A."
Since the president is not known for any hint of a Damascus-like conversion, it is far more likely that he will double down on the argument that the coronavirus has been exaggerated in its morbidity; that the more than 200,000 dead are "fake news" and that he was right all along in dismissing the danger posed by the pandemic: "I survived with minimum or no symptoms. So will you."
His incredibly irresponsible decision for a Sunday "drive-by" outside Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, putting his security detail and others at risk, may be the first of his double-down tactics.
A worse case for the president and the nation is if he contracts more serious and life-threatening symptoms such as befell British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and is incapacitated for a significant time. Then, the election could be thrown into turmoil. The media have raised many of the questions that would follow, especially since mail-in voting has been long underway.
Most of the "what ifs" are unanswerable now. What if the president were incapacitated and hospitalized for weeks, as Johnson was, or longer? What if there were severe after-effects? When would the vice president be empowered to become acting president and under what circumstances? What if the president were to die -- would the party nominate the vice president to replace him? And what if an international crisis broke out -- would questions arise about who was in charge, as happened after President Ronald Reagan was shot in 1981?
These consequences extend to the Congress and to the Senate hearings to confirm Judge Amy Coney Barrett as a Supreme Court Justice. The current Senate balance is a 53-47 Republican majority. The Senate requires an in-person floor vote. So far, three Republican senators have tested positive for the virus, reducing the majority to 50-47. Suppose two or more Republican senators chose to hold the vote post-election. That would give Democrats a 49-48 advantage.
While it would be poetic justice for Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, facing a defeat, to reverse course and not persist in ramming a vote through the Senate before the election, would he? And Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and his Democratic colleagues no doubt would seize the opportunity and demand an immediate vote on the judge. Hypocrisy would run rampant, not that that ever made a difference.
As I wrote earlier, we could see a January nightmare in which no president or vice president was elected by the Electoral College or the House of Representatives and the 1947 Presidential Succession Act was challenged on the basis that the next in line, speaker of the House, was not an "officer" of the executive branch specified in the Constitution. Would or would not the secretary of state become acting president? There is no clear answer.
In "normal times," good reasons exist as to withhold certain information about a president's health so that adversaries will not exploit it. Yet, given the falsehoods and outright distortions that have accompanied the president's 47 months in office, what can be trusted and what cannot be?
I have argued that the Constitution is at grave risk because checks and balances, the basic foundations for government, have become unchecked and unbalanced. Tragically perhaps, COVID-19 could make these imbalances even worse.
Harlan Ullman is senior adviser at the Atlantic Council and author of the upcoming book, "The Fifth Horseman: To Be Feared, Friended or Fought in a MAD-Driven Age."