U.S. Election 2020 - Views From Abroad

Trump And COVID: Will It Be Like Boris Johnson Or Bolsonaro?

Ahead of the Nov. 3 election, this is an October Surprise that has four full weeks to play out.

Trump in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 23
Trump in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 23
Jeff Israely

The "first rough draft of history…" That's what they used to call the news back when most of us got it delivered in daily newspapers and our once-a-night evening broadcast. Now that everything that happens comes flooding at us, all the time, with more and more angles and voices and fewer and fewer agreed upon standards … well, that first draft has gotten much rougher.

The news of President Trump testing positive for COVID-19 pinged across the planet soon after midnight Washington time, just as we were waking up Friday morning here in Europe — and we all (inside and outside the news business) are expected to instantly start making sense of this apparently monumental breaking news story.

It is a tale about Trump and his unimaginable presidency, but also about this unprecedented pandemic. It is the proverbial (early) "October surprise," just a month before the Nov. 3 election, that throws an already tumultuous high-stakes campaign into uncharted territory, in what is still the world's most influential country.

It will be viewed by some as an ironic dose of "just desserts' for a leader who has long downplayed the risks of the virus. Yet anyone seeing this news who claims to know how it will now play out clearly has failed to understand the nature of either this virus, or this president. There are countless possible scenarios, of course. But to begin this first draft before it even happens, it's worth looking at two other world leaders — each with a Trumpian approach to both leadership and COVID — who both happened to contract the virus in the past months. And then, try to factor in the coming election, now just 32 days away:

Boris Johnson: The populist British Prime Minister was one of the first major politicians to announce that he had tested positive. The news in late March came after he had initially downplayed the gravity of the pandemic, and even considered foregoing any lockdowns in the UK in order to achieve so-called "herd immunity." Once stricken himself, Johnson initially claimed his symptoms were relatively mild, but over the coming days his health deteriorated, and he wound up in intensive care.

The Guardian later reported that doctors nearly decided to put the 55-year-old overweight on a ventilator, which has been a sign that a COVID-19's patient condition is grave. Johnson himself later quipped that "it could have gone either way." Though he emerged, and gained a momentary boost of public sympathy (thanks also to Johnson's girlfriend giving birth), the political "optics' were awful vis a vis the pandemic: a brash leader who'd brushed off the gravity of the coronavirus was debilitated for nearly a full month, mostly out of public view, forced to acknowledge (first-hand) what the risks really are.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro in Sao Paulo on Aug. 12 — Photo: Marcelo Chello/ZUMA

Jair Bolsonaro: Trump included, no world leader has been more dismissive of the threat of COVID-19 than Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Many experts in Brazil point to his public rantings against lockdowns and mask-wearing, which contributed to the country's more than 100,000 deaths.

When Bolsonaro tested positive on July 7, he went into quarantine but said he felt well and would continue his regular work through video calls. After testing negative two weeks later, he returned in full form: O Globo reported the 65-year-old singing the praises of the untested drug hydroxychloroquine and trivialized the virus saying he just had "a little mould" in his lungs. And days later Bolsonaro was back in crowds, with his approval ratings about to reach a new record-high.

Trump & Nov. 3: Of course, neither Johnson nor Bolsonaro contracted the virus on the eve of a reelection bid. With COVID-19 having become highly politicized in the U.S., and responsible for more than 200,000 deaths, the pandemic was already at the center of the showdown between Trump and Joe Biden, with the former vice president ahead in the polls and hammering away on the issue.

What will happen between now and Nov. 3 depends, it seems, how the body (not just the mouth) of the 74-year-old president reacts to the unpredictable virus. If his condition deteriorates over the next two weeks, à la Johnson, it's hard to imagine any way he can make his case and overtake Biden. But if he bounces back quickly like Bolsonaro, emerging with a storyline of his own personal superpowers and a virus as beatable as he'd always claimed, well then the 2020 election may have its second October surprise.

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Geopolitics

"The Truest Hypocrisy" - The Russia-NATO Clash Seen From Moscow

Russia has decided to cut off relations with the Western military alliance. But Moscow says it was NATO who really wanted the break based on its own internal rationale.

NATO chief Stoltenberg and Russian Foregin Minister Lavrov

Russian Foreign Ministry/TASS via ZUMA
Pavel Tarasenko and Sergei Strokan

MOSCOW — The Russian Foreign Ministry's announcement that the country's permanent representation to NATO would be shut down for an indefinite period is a major development. But from Moscow's viewpoint, there was little alternative.

These measures were taken in response to the decision of NATO on Oct. 6 to cut the number of personnel allowed in the Russian mission to the Western alliance by half. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the removal of accreditations was from eight employees of the Russian mission to NATO who were identified as undeclared employees of Russian intelligence." We have seen an increase in Russian malicious activity for some time now," Stoltenberg said.


The Russian Foreign Ministry called NATO's expulsion of Russian personnel a "ridiculous stunt," and Stoltenberg's words "the truest hypocrisy."

In announcing the complete shutdown in diplomacy between Moscow and NATO, the Russian Foreign Ministry added: "The 'Russian threat' is being hyped in strengthen the alliance's internal unity and create the appearance of its 'relevance' in modern geopolitical conditions."

The number of Russian diplomatic missions in Brussels has been reduced twice unilaterally by NATO in 2015 and 2018 - after the alliance's decision of April 1, 2014 to suspend all practical civilian and military cooperation between Russia and NATO in the wake of Russia's annexation of Crimea. Diplomats' access to the alliance headquarters and communications with its international secretariat was restricted, military contacts have frozen.

Yet the new closure of all diplomatic contacts is a perilous new low. Kommersant sources said that the changes will affect the military liaison mission of the North Atlantic alliance in Moscow, aimed at promoting the expansion of the dialogue between Russia and NATO. However, in recent years there has been no de facto cooperation. And now, as Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has announced, the activities of the military liaison mission will be suspended. The accreditation of its personnel will be canceled on November 1.

NATO told RIA Novosti news service on Monday that it regretted Moscow's move. Meanwhile, among Western countries, Germany was the first to respond. "It would complicate the already difficult situation in which we are now and prolong the "ice age," German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told reporters.

"Lavrov said on Monday, commenting on the present and future of relations between Moscow and the North Atlantic Alliance, "If this is the case, then we see no great need to continue pretending that any changes will be possible in the foreseeable future because NATO has already announced that such changes are impossible.

The suspension of activities of the Russian Permanent Mission to NATO, as well as the military liaison and information mission in Russia, means that Moscow and Brussels have decided to "draw a final line under the partnership relations of previous decades," explained Andrei Kortunov, director-general of the Russian Council on Foreign Affairs, "These relations began to form in the 1990s, opening channels for cooperation between the sides … but they have continued to steadily deteriorate over recent years."

Kortunov believes the current rupture was promoted by Brussels. "A new strategy for NATO is being prepared, which will be adopted at the next summit of the alliance, and the previous partnership with Russia does not fit into its concept anymore."

The existence and expansion of NATO after the end of the Cold War was the main reason for the destruction of the whole complex of relations between Russia and the West. Today, Russia is paying particular attention to marking red lines related to the further steps of Ukraine's integration into NATO. Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov previously stated this, warning that in response to the alliance's activity in the Ukrainian direction, Moscow would take "active steps" to ensure its security.

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