Days before Thanksgiving 2019, President Donald Trump made an unscheduled visit to Walter Reed hospital, a trip the White House later dismissed as nothing more than a “quick exam and labs” as part of his annual physical.
Even then, the explanation was fishy. Presidents don’t make trips that members of the press don’t know about almost ever — unless they are flying into a war zone and their safety is at risk. And the leader of the free world certainly doesn’t just pop in to the hospital to get an early start on his annual physical — especially without the medical staff at the hospital being given a heads up.
And now, thanks to a new book by New York Times reporter Michael Schmidt, we now know that Vice President Mike Pence was put on alert to take over the duties of president if Trump had to be anesthetized during the trip. Writes Schmidt in “Donald Trump v. the United States“:
“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, unless physicals have changed drastically since I got one last year, suggests that whatever was going on with the President that made him visit Walter Reed unannounced was more than just a “quick exam and labs” — or, at least, those in the White House were concerned that it might be. And that the White House — as I wrote at the time — wasn’t telling the whole truth about Trump’s condition.
Trump responded to apparent Twitter chatter about the incident on Tuesday, saying in a tweet, “It never ends! Now they are trying to say that your favorite President, me, went to Walter Reed Medical Center, having suffered a series of mini-strokes. Never happened to THIS candidate – FAKE NEWS. Perhaps they are referring to another candidate from another Party!”
White House physician Sean Conley released a statement following the tweet that said the President “has not experienced nor been evaluated for a cerebrovascular accident (stroke), transient ischemic attack (mini stroke), or any acute cardiovascular emergencies, as have been incorrectly reported in the media. The President remains healthy and I have no concerns about his ability to maintain the rigorous schedule ahead of him. As stated in my last report, I expect him to remain fit to execute the duties of the Presidency.”
This all matters because a) Trump is the oldest person ever elected to a first term as president b) he’s seeking a second term that would have him in office until he is 78 and c) we know less about his medical history than about any previous president.
It’s that last point that, to me, makes the unscheduled trip to Walter Reed last year, and the clear lack of transparency by the White House about it, so concerning.
Consider this: 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.”
Which, of course, is crazy. Bornstein had never examined any past president. So his ability to claim that Trump would be the “healthiest individual” ever to be president is roughly equivalent to my ability to say the same.
At the time the letter was released, it was subject to widespread mockery — mostly because it read like Trump himself had written it. Which it turns out he did, at least according to Bornstein.
“He dictated that whole letter. I didn’t write that letter,” Bornstein told CNN in 2018. “I just made it up as I went along.” Added Bornstein: “(Trump) dictated the letter and I would tell him what he couldn’t put in there. They came to pick up their letter at 4 o’clock or something.”
Bornstein also told NBC that Trump’s medical records had been taken from him by former Trump bodyguard Keith Schiller and another man just days after the doctor told The New York Times that the President took medicine to grow his hair.
So, take a step back. The only information we have about Trump’s health, prior to the annual physical he is subject to in the White House, comes in the form of a letter that his personal physician at the time says was entirely dictated by Trump. And the medical records that might shed some light on Trump’s past medical history have been confiscated by Trump associates!
Trump’s annual physicals since coming into office have shed very little light on, well, much of anything.
“There were no findings of significance or changes to report,” Conley wrote in a memo detailing the results of Trump’s 2020 physical. That memo noted that Trump had a Body Mass Index of 30.5, meaning he is technically “obese,” and that his cholesterol dropped to 167 — down from 196 in 2019 and an unhealthy 223 in 2018. Trump also appears to have undergone some sort of cognitive test during that physical as well. As he told Fox News’ Sean Hannity in July:
“I actually took one when I — very recently, when I — when I was — the radical left were saying, is he all there? Is he all there? And I proved I was all there, because I got — I aced it. I aced the test. … I took it at Walter Reed Medical Center in front of doctors. And they were very surprised. They said, that’s an unbelievable thing. Rarely does anybody do what you just did.”
Taken as a whole, we know very, very little about Trump’s medical history. And, as Schmidt’s reporting makes clear, we don’t yet have the full story of what happened in November 2019.
All of which is remarkable, given that Trump has made questions of health a major line of attack against former Vice President Joe Biden in this general election. (Biden, who will turn 78 shortly after the election, would eclipse Trump as the oldest person ever elected to a first term.) And Trump, without any evidence, has repeatedly questioned Biden’s mental capacity and ability to do the job he is seeking. For what it’s worth, there is also no evidence of Biden suffering from any sort of medical issue like Trump alleged in his Tuesday tweet.
Trump’s strategic decision to put a premium on health and mental acuity means that it’s fair game to want answers about his own standing on those issues. And, with Schmidt’s new reporting added into the mix, we have A LOT more questions than answers on that front.