Days before Thanksgiving last year, President Donald Trump made an unannounced and previously unscheduled trip to Walter Reed medical center. The White House said the trip was for a “quick exam and labs.” We still don’t know why he actually went – or what the outcome of his visit was.
On Sunday, three days after Thanksgiving this year, President-elect Joe Biden slipped and hurt his foot while playing with his dog, Major. We were quickly told – via the traveling press pool – that Biden was going to see his orthopedist out of an abundance of caution. Within two hours, there was a statement from Dr. Kevin O’Connor noting that Biden’s foot had been X-rayed and it appeared as though he had a sprain. A CT scan was going to be conducted just to confirm the diagnosis, however.
Then, 90 minutes after that, came this, again from O’Connor: “Initial x-rays did not show any obvious fracture, but his clinical exam warranted more detailed imaging. Follow-up CT scan confirmed hairline (small) fractures of President-elect Biden’s lateral and intermediate cuneiform bones, which are in the mid-foot. It is anticipated that he will likely require a walking boot for several weeks.”
Notice the difference?
Now, I – and probably you – don’t know or care all that much about Joe Biden’s “lateral and intermediate cuneiform bones.” But that isn’t really the point.
The point is this: Transparency in matters of health and, well, everything else, is fundamental to a functioning democracy. And we have had the opposite of that for these last four years.
Go back to Trump’s unannounced and still unexplained visit to Walter Reed back in November 2019.
The initial explanation, offered by White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham, for the unannounced visit was this: “Anticipating a very busy 2020, the President is taking advantage of a free weekend here in Washington, D.C., to begin portions of his routine annual physical exam at Walter Reed.”
Which, weird – because the President doesn’t make unscheduled visits almost anywhere, and certainly not to a hospital for tests. The White House has never offered any further explanation of the Walter Reed trip. But in a book by New York Times reporter Michael Schmidt that came out last fall, he wrote this of the incident:
“In the hours leading up to Trump’s trip to the hospital, word went out in the West Wing for the vice president to be on standby to take over the powers of the presidency temporarily if Trump had to undergo a procedure that would have required him to be anesthetized.”
Which seems an odd precaution for a “quick exam and labs,” right? Right.
Especially when you consider we know less about Trump’s medical history than any previous candidate for president in the modern era.
Trump released zero medical records when he ran for president in 2016, What he did release was a letter from Dr. Harold Bornstein, his longtime personal physician, that asserted simply: “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.” (Bornstein later distanced himself from the letter, saying that Trump effectively dictated it to him.)
Biden, who at 78 is the oldest person ever elected to a first term in the White House (he broke the record Trump set), released a summary of his medical records in late 2019. At the time, O’Connor wrote that Biden was “a healthy, vigorous, 77-year-old male, who is fit to successfully execute the duties of the Presidency.”
(Worth noting: Biden occasionally bristled when questioned about his health on the campaign trail; “If you want to check my shape, let’s do push-ups together man,” Biden told a man in Iowa in the fall of 2019. “Let’s run, let’s do whatever you want to do. Let’s take an IQ test.”)
The transparency coming from Biden’s transition team about hairline fractures in the President-elect’s foot suggests that the effort by the Trump White House to actively obfuscate when asked basic questions about the President’s health is over.
It’s a good start. But only a start. Let’s see if the President-elect and his team can stay committed to full transparency about his health in the coming years.