Trump COVID infection creates new challenge for GOP

WASHINGTON | Hitched to Donald Trump, Republicans in Congress are facing perhaps their biggest loyalty test yet as the administration’s response to the COVID-19 crisis comes under new scrutiny after the president and the First Lady tested positive for the virus just weeks before the November election.

So far, the Republicans are standing by Trump. Their Senate majority is seriously at risk and hopes for winning back the House are long gone. But Republicans are reluctant to criticize Trump or provoke his legions of supporters — even if it might jeopardize their political careers.

“Full steam ahead,” tweeted the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell about Trump’s agenda.

The Republican Senate leader, who faces his own re-election in Kentucky, said the president was in “good spirits” when the two spoke by phone and “talked business” early Friday. They are particularly focused on the swift confirmation of Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, ahead of the Nov. 3 election.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, one of Trump’s first backers in Congress, said “no” when he was asked if Trump’s response to the pandemic has been reckless.

“I think this moment in time is a time the nation should come together and pray for the president,” the California Republican told reporters Friday at the Capitol.

Time and again, Trump has tested the bounds of his relationships with his allies in Congress. And time and again, they have stuck with him, even as one more senator, Republican Mike Lee of Utah, announced Friday he tested positive for the virus and will be working from home. And they stayed loyal even after Trump’s bellicose debate performance left GOP senators uneasy — with one using an expletive to describe it. Still, Trump’s Republican allies simply shrug that Trump will be Trump.

Now, Trump is expected to quarantine for 10 days, sidelined from campaigning during a critical stretch as states are early voting ahead of Election Day. Several Republicans doubted the president will hit pause, praising his stamina and some suggesting the diagnosis might “soften” voters who have grown tired of Trump’s brash approach to governing.

“He works so hard to be a tough guy, but this may soften him a little bit and make people go, ‘Okay, you know, he’s human, too,'” Said Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Va., also a COVID survivor.

“You always root for someone who’s down,” he said.

Another COVID survivor, Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Pa., said he doesn’t expect Trump will take many days off.

“He’s stronger than 10 acres of garlic,” said Kelly.

Democrats said Friday the threat to the president’s health provides a moment for reconsideration of the COVID-19 strategy.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she she’s praying for the president and hopes the entire situation might be a “learning experience” to consider “a transition to a saner approach” to fighting the coronavirus.

“This is tragic, it is very sad,” Pelosi said on MSNBC.

But Pelosi said the “brazen” behavior — the president’s mockery of mask-wearing and his insistence on holding large campaign rallies — allowed “something like this to happen.”

Pelosi is in talks with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin about a new coronavirus aid package, and House Democrats approved their latest $1.6 billion offer in legislation this week. That legislation is now before the Senate.

But GOP leaders, particularly McConnell, appear unable to move toward any agreement, with many Republican senators saying no further federal funding or intervention is needed.

Few GOP senators spoke out Friday to change course.

Sen. Susan Collins, facing her own difficult re-election in Maine, said she was “sorry” to hear about the president and the first lady.

“Our nation remains in the midst of a persistent pandemic, and we must continue to take the proper precautions to keep our families safe from the virus,” she said.

Senators are also pushing ahead with confirmation this month of Barrett to the Supreme Court as Senate Democrats warn of GOP attempts to dismantle the 2010 health care law. The court is expected to consider a lawsuit against the law days after the election.

“What happened to President Trump is a reminder of why the whole country, including senators and staff, must follow the science,” Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said in a statement. “When you ignore the science, you don’t wear a mask, and you don’t follow social distancing guidelines, it puts you and everyone around you at risk.”

On Friday, the House overwhelmingly voted to condemn the QAnon movement for “promoting a collection of unfounded conspiracy theories.”

The group is drawing support from some GOP candidates for Congress who also back Trump. It accuses prominent politicians of being child molesters and its followers have occasionally resorted to violence. While the House approved the resolution Friday, 17 Republicans and one independent lawmaker voted against it.

Associated Press writers Laurie Kellman, Mary Clare Jalonick and Andrew Taylor in Washington and David Sharp in Maine, contributed to this report.