President Donald Trump’s slow and halting descent down a ramp following his commencement speech at West Point lit up the internet over the weekend, with many speculating about whether he was in ill health.
Trump, because he is Trump, responded to the criticism late Saturday night with this tweet:
“The ramp that I descended after my West Point Commencement speech was very long & steep, had no handrail and, most importantly, was very slippery. The last thing I was going to do is ‘fall’ for the Fake News to have fun with. Final ten feet I ran down to level ground. Momentum!”
By responding, Trump took what might have been a Twitter-only story and turned it into a much broader – and longer – one, with most major newspapers covering it.
(Worth noting: In The Washington Post’s story, reporter Phil Rucker wrote: “Trump’s claim that the ramp had been ‘very slippery’ was inconsistent with the weather, which on Saturday in West Point, N.Y., was sunny and clear-skied. The grass plain on which the commencement took place was dry.”)
Here’s the thing: It is a story. For a lot of reasons.
1) Trump is 74: The President turned 74 on Sunday. He is the oldest person ever elected to a first term in the White House. Earlier this month, the White House released a memo on the results of Trump’s annual physical that only briefly outlined the overall picture of his health (height, weight etc.). It did not mention an unscheduled trip to Walter Reed hospital by Trump in November 2019, which the White House later said was simply part of the President’s annual physical.
2) Trump’s medical past is a total mystery: As I’ve written recently, we know less about Trump’s medical history than any previous modern-day president.
The extent of Trump’s medical records prior to being elected in 2016 came in the form of a single letter from his personal physician in 2015 that read, in part: “If elected, Mr. Trump, I can state unequivocally, will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency. … His physical strength and stamina are extraordinary.”
That doctor later said that Trump dictated the letter to him and that two Trump associates had seized the President’s medical records from him in 2017 after he told The New York Times that Trump took medication to grow his hair.
So the full extent of what we know about the President’s health before he took over the most powerful job in the world comes from a brief and braggadocious letter that the doctor who signed it says he didn’t write. OK then.
3) Trump makes his opponents’ health a major issue: On Monday morning, Trump sent a tweet attacking former Vice President Joe Biden, who is 77 years old, as “weak & shot.” That’s part of a deliberate strategy on behalf of the President who has repeatedly suggested that Biden is losing or has lost his mental capacity.
“WOW! Sleepy Joe doesn’t know where he is, or what he’s doing,” Trump tweeted in March. “Honestly, I don’t think he even knows what office he’s running for!”
“Biden can’t do it,” Trump said in an interview last month. “He doesn’t know he’s alive.”
And Trump did the exact same thing during the 2016 campaign against Hillary Clinton, particularly after she fell ill while attending a September 11 memorial service.
“She could be crazy,” he said at a rally in October 2016. “She could actually be crazy.”
“To defeat crime and radical Islamic terrorism in our country, to win trade in our country, you need tremendous physical and mental strength and stamina,” he said in Wisconsin in August of that year. “Hillary Clinton doesn’t have that strength and stamina.”
This is a what’s-good-for-the-goose-is-good-for-the-gander situation. If Trump can openly question the physical and mental fitness of his Democratic opponents, then when there is a moment where he looks frail, it is absolutely fair game to ask questions about his own well-being – particularly given his age and how little we know about his medical past.
So yes, of course, the President’s tentative and slow walk down a ramp is a story. Donald Trump made it one.