Rebecca Grant: Trump ailing but national security not at risk — president still in command

Millions of Americans are praying for President Trump’s speedy recovery after he was hospitalized Friday with COVID-19, but we need not fear that his illness has created a national security crisis.

The president of the United States is president no matter where he is. Like many of us during the coronavirus pandemic, he is working away from the office. But the communications tools at his disposal and the aides working to help him carry out his duties dwarf anything those of working from home via email and Zoom calls have at our disposal.

As long as he remains of sound mind and not sedated, the president is perfectly capable of carrying out his duties from the quite spiffy facilities at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center just outside Washington.


The president tweeted out a video Saturday night recorded at Walter Reed’s presidential suite and was clearly alert and in full command of his faculties. He was seated at a table – not bedridden – and was wearing a sports jacket or suit coat rather than hospital garb.

“I came here, wasn’t feeling so well,” President Trump said in the short video. “I feel much better now. We’re working hard to get me all the way back. I have to be back, because we still have to make America great again. We’ve done an awfully good job of that, but we still have steps to go and we have to have to finish that job.”


In a statement released Saturday night by the White House, presidential physician Dr. Sean Conley said, “President Trump continues to do well, having made substantial progress since diagnosis…. He spent most of the afternoon conducting business, and has been up and moving about the medical suite without difficulty. While not yet out of the woods, the team remains optimistic.”

That was welcome news. So barring a turn for the worse, it looks like the commander in chief remains firmly in command.

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Presidents are flesh-and-blood human beings and, like the rest of us, they sometimes get sick or injured. That has happened throughout American history and will be the case in the future as well. But they’ve rarely had to step away from the heavy responsibilities of the most challenging job in the world.

President Ronald Reagan was hospitalized from March 30 to April 11, 1981, after he was shot by John Hinckley. Reagan was seeing visitors the morning after his life-saving surgery and turned his hospital room into his temporary office.

Reagan transferred executive power to Vice President George H.W. Bush for eight hours while undergoing surgery in 1985. President George W. Bush twice transferred power to his Vice President Dick Cheney for just a few hours while undergoing medical procedures that required he be sedated.

Should President Trump’s condition worsen to such an extent that he is unable to carry out his duties, he could step aside for a few hours or even several days and Vice President Mike Pence could serve as acting president, with no impact on the U.S. military posture and readiness.

Trump is not the first world leader infected with the coronavirus. The leaders of Britain, Brazil, Bolivia, Guatemala and Honduras have also tested positive for COVID-19. And a larger group of cabinet-level officials in countries around the world have come down with the disease. Members of Congress and state and federal officials in the U.S. have also been stricken, as well as legislators in other countries.

Even if President Trump is sidelined as Boris Johnson was, we needn’t worry about military operations and nuclear command and control. 

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson contracted COVID-19 in March. Johnson went from staying home with mild symptoms to spending several days in the hospital, including three nights in intensive care receiving “liters and liters of oxygen,” he later said.

“It was a tough old moment, I won’t deny it,” Johnson told The Sun newspaper. “They had a strategy to deal with a ‘death of Stalin-type’ scenario,” he quipped. Britain also has nuclear weapons, and Johnson informally transferred authority to Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab during the worst phase of his illness.

Even if President Trump is sidelined as Boris Johnson was, we needn’t worry about military operations and nuclear command and control.

The National Military Command Center keeps track of the president, vice president, defense secretary and everyone else in the military chain of command around the clock every day of the year.

A special military office at the White House ensures presidential communications are constant, and if Pence temporarily becomes acting president the transfer of power will occur seamlessly and instantly.

A military aide is with the president (or acting president) at all times, carrying codes and procedures for military operations, including launching a nuclear strike.

The military aides are handpicked young officers, male and female, from all branches of the armed forces. Their job is to link the president into conference calls for evaluating major threats and ordering military operations if necessary. They can do the same for Vice President Pence if he holds executive authority.

In addition, U.S. forces and commanders around the world are keeping their eyes open, as always.

Russia is playing nice. “I am convinced that your vitality, good spirits and optimism will help you cope with this dangerous virus,” Putin messaged to Trump, according to the Kremlin. No doubt NATO is already quite vigilant due to the Black Sea activity, unrest in Belarus and the shooting outbreaks between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

From North Korea, President Kim Jong Un sent warm greetings and sympathy to President Trump and first lady Melania Trump, who also tested positive for COVID-19.

Other leaders around the world also put out statements wishing President and Mrs. Trump speedy recoveries. These included leaders of China, Russia, India, Germany, Israel, Turkey, Afghanistan, Italy, the Netherlands, Mexico and Mrs. Trump’s birthplace of Slovenia.

No word yet from Iran, but I’d expect something inappropriate and insulting at some stage. This is a nation where officials lead huge crowds in chants of “Death to America!”

Chinese President Xi Jinping issued a message Saturday directed at Trump stating: “My wife, Peng Liyuan, and I express our sympathies to you and your wife and wish you a fast recovery.”

But Chinese media – which are under control of the government – were not so kind. They have twisted Trump’s diagnosis into more ammunition for China’s global war on America’s reputation and leadership.

“President Trump and the first lady have paid the price for his gamble to play down the COVID-19,” tweeted Hu Xijin, editor of China’ Global Times, a state-run newspaper. That’s cold.

China has shamelessly refused to take any blame for the virus that originated in Wuhan and has spent months trying to convince the world the ongoing pandemic shows America is unfit as a world leader. Bizarre as this sounds, China’s press blames the U.S. for holding up global progress in fighting the pandemic.

All this is happening because Trump has reset America’s relations with China over the last four years. The world is warier of China’s technology heists, trade deals and military intentions. China hates this, and its state-run media gloat over America’s struggles with COVID-19.


At the moment, the relentless propaganda from China is a bigger threat than military action from the People’s Republic. China is trying to use COVID-19 to prove the United States is unfit to lead the world and will use Trump’s diagnosis for its own sinister ends.

America has benefited from the sheer momentum of President Trump as commander in chief on issues from China to revitalizing the military. And while he’s still on the job from his hospital suite, I’m rooting for his full and fast recovery because our nation needs him back on the world stage.


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