US adversaries could seize on Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis to spread disinformation

More fake stories could roil a tense and divided America weeks ahead of the Nov. 3 election.

President Donald Trump holds a face mask as he speaks during the first presidential debate at the Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Clinic in Ohio on Sept. 29, 2020. (Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)
President Donald Trump holds a face mask as he speaks during the first presidential debate at the Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Clinic in Ohio on Sept. 29, 2020. (Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)
Posted October 2, 2020 at 5:10pm, Updated October 5, 2020 at 7:15pm

The security implications of President Donald Trump’s contraction of the novel coronavirus are more likely to involve a stepped-up Russian disinformation campaign than any military event, several former top government officials said.

While more fake stories on social media would almost certainly not lead to war, they could roil an already tense and divided America just a few weeks ahead of the Nov. 3 election.

In what would seem a positive sign about Trump’s health, the president returned to the White House on Monday evening after spending three days at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in the nearby Maryland suburbs. 

But officials have acknowledged to reporters that Trump’s condition has been serious. He was given supplemental oxygen to help him breathe on Oct. 2. His blood oxygen levels plummeted suddenly on two occasions in recent days. And he was given a steroid that experts have said is normally reserved for those with extreme cases of COVID-19.  

If the president's health does not worsen considerably, little of consequence is likely to change in the realm of national security. The president is 74, though, placing him at greater risk than most people of getting worse and even dying. And the virus can worsen in the second week and even after it has shown signs of subsiding, doctors have said.

The Constitution provides the framework, and the White House has the protocols, for a transition of power to the vice president, should it become necessary even temporarily. But several times before, those well-laid plans have almost gone sideways, and they could again.

If the president’s health worsens or confusion reigns about it, U.S. adversaries could misread American capabilities and take military action against the United States or its allies and partners — either to try to exploit a perceived American weakness or because they fear the United States might be more likely to take aggressive action itself during this period.

However, most experts stress that a so-called “kinetic” military action involving arms — whether by Russia, China, Iran or North Korea — is unlikely.

“Our adversaries will always be trying to look for opportunities, but when they look at the readiness and stability of the U.S. military, I doubt they would be as concerned as perhaps some in the media are about what’s going on in Washington,” said Heather A. Wilson, who was Trump’s first confirmed Air Force secretary, in an Oct. 2 interview.

Standing ready

Jonathan Hoffman, the Pentagon spokesman, sought to communicate to U.S. friends and foes about the stability of U.S. national security in an Oct. 2 statement.

“There’s been no change to DoD alert levels,” Hoffman said. “The US military stands ready to defend our country and interests. There’s no change to the readiness or capability of our armed forces.”

If military fallout is unlikely, what is instead probable is that Russia, especially, will try to create confusion and lies about Trump’s health, experts said.

Adversaries are more likely to attack on the internet than by using traditional military hardware, said a former Trump administration National Security Council official who requested anonymity.

“It’s an extension of the election-influence operations that we’ve seen, where Russia has used covert means on social media to set groups of Americans against each other by putting out false and provocative information,” the former senior official said. “Essentially what they are trying to do is remove the consent of the governed from our government. They do that by trying to create an environment where both sides do not have trust in our elected leaders.”

Michael Green, who served on the National Security Council under President George W. Bush, said propaganda efforts by U.S. adversaries on social media could, for example, depict Trump’s illness as made-up by the White House in an attempt at a kind of “October surprise” to somehow help his reelection prospects. Or the fake stories could say that Democrats caused the disease in an effort to seize power. Or, more likely, the Russians could spread both of those tales and plenty more untrue ones.

Russia’s main purpose is “to fuel polarization, disfunctionality, resentment and perhaps even violence,” Green said.

Benjamin Friedman, director of Defense Priorities, a libertarian-leaning think tank, agreed that social media disinformation is U.S. foes' most likely response to Trump’s condition.

“But,” he said in an Oct. 2 statement, “that has no particular bearing on U.S. security and should not be conflated with a military attack.”

Meanwhile, the Russian Embassy in Washington tweeted a message Friday from Russian President Vladimir Putin to the Trumps: “I am sure that your inherent vitality, vigour and optimism will help you overcome the dangerous virus.”

James Carafano, a defense expert with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, does not think that the social media impact will be noticeable because there is already such a high volume of partisan misinformation online.

"That's like yelling 'Fire!' in the middle of the Super Bowl with 80,000 fans screaming," Carafano said.

Transition worries

If the president were to die, power would clearly transfer to the vice president under the Constitution's terms.

But if the president becomes suddenly incapacitated, the situation can become more complicated.

The 25th Amendment provides that the president can sign over his powers temporarily to the vice president if he is not able to execute his duties — and then can sign them back in afterwards — as Ronald Reagan did when he had surgery for colon cancer and as George W. Bush did twice for colonoscopies.

However, if the president becomes suddenly incapacitated or unable to execute his powers for a time — and has not had a chance to sign over his authority — things can get murky.

The 25th amendment was not invoked after Reagan was shot and underwent surgery in 1981 while the vice president was traveling. That led to confusion that culminated in then-Secretary of State Alexander Haig mistakenly and infamously telling reporters, “I am in control here.”

In the confusion after the 2001 terrorist attacks, Vice President Dick Cheney took charge and ordered U.S. fighter jets to be ready to shoot down passenger jets if necessary, though no such mission ever occurred.

Cheney said he had been authorized by the president, who was in Florida at the time. The Sept. 11 commission said it never found evidence of any such order.

The 25th Amendment does provide for a process for the vice president and Cabinet to vote to confer presidential powers on the vice president if the president is still alive but is judged unable to carry out his duties or designate an acting president. That process has never been invoked.

Green, for his part, thinks the Trump White House’s disorganization and dysfunction would make the task of an orderly transition in chaotic circumstances more difficult, if it must come to pass.