It was the kind of weekend that might give anyone agita — even a superhuman physical specimen like Donald Trump. The day before, his longtime political adviser and confidant Roger Stone had been convicted of seven felony counts, in a trial that raised serious questions about whether Trump himself had lied in a sworn statement to special counsel Robert Mueller. At almost the same moment on Capitol Hill, everyday citizens were giving ousted Ukraine Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch a standing ovation, largely for standing up to the president’s bullying.
But America still doesn’t know if it was KFC-induced heartburn, the stress of impeachment, or simply boredom on the first fall weekend too cold for golf that inspired the 45th president to summon a full motorcade in the middle of a Saturday afternoon and visit the good doctors at Walter Reed Medical Center in nearby Bethesda. The trip wasn’t on his schedule and seemingly caught hospital staff and journalists (who were, at first, sworn to secrecy about what was happening) off guard.
But the whole thing was no big deal, according to never-held-a-briefing presidential press secretary Stephanie Grisham. She emerged from her location-only-known-to-Fox-News bunker to explain that her boss had some free time and — instead of catching a Saturday matinee or watching some college football — decided to get a head start on 2020′s annual physical, but by doing only a part of the exam. Three months early.
As one does.
“The president remains healthy and energetic without complaints, as demonstrated by his repeated vigorous rally performances in front of thousands of Americans several times a week,” Grisham said in a statement that was immediately cast into sharp doubt by using the words “the president” and “no complaints” in the same sentence. Her over-the-top declaration echoed all the previous Trumpian health pronouncements that have turned this seemingly pudgy 73-year-old dude who needs a cart to navigate a golf course into a Charles Atlas-like strongman, capable of pulling a railroad car with his teeth.
These kind of absurd Death of Stalin-style pronouncements — which would have sounded ridiculous even if uttered by “Baghdad Bob,” the hapless Saddam Hussein flack who insisted the defense of Baghdad was going just swell as reporters could see the U.S. tanks on the horizon — were instantly lampooned by late-night comics. So Monday at around 11 p.m. — still all perfectly normal, right? — the president’s personal physician, Navy Cmdr. Dr. Sean Conley, issued a new statement meant to put the matter to rest.
Conley, an area man (graduated from Central Bucks East in Doylestown) who served in the combat zone of Afghanistan, said there were no presidential chest pains — as widely rumored on social media — or neurological disorders. What happened, Conley said in his middle-of-the-night statement, was “regular, primary preventive care.” So ... case closed, right?
Well, not exactly. Conley gave no details as to what that “regular, primary preventive care” was, but even that vague description isn’t the same as the laughable, “partial physical” tale spun on Saturday night by Grisham. In blunt terms, someone is clearly lying. And whatever his laudable record in Afghanistan, Conley received justifiable criticism after Trump’s actual March 2019 physical when he said the commander-in-chief (i.e., his boss) “is in very good health and I anticipate he will remain so for the duration of his presidency, and beyond” — a prediction not even the world’s greatest physician either can or should be making.
The truth is that the American people still don’t know what really happened at Walter Reed Medical Center on Saturday, nor do we know whether a president who controls our destructive nuclear arsenal is healthy. That would be alarming in normal times, but with America’s second-oldest president facing the incessant pressure of impeachment, it should be a crisis. Sure, we have a POTUS who’s lied an astronomical 13,000-plus-and-counting times in less than three years, but this kind of Big Lie matters even more than most, for two reasons. One of those reasons is kind of obvious, but the other is more insidious, with the future of American democracy on the line.
Let’s start with the obvious. First of all, even those of us who hate the way that President Trump has shredded American values must also wish him good health and a long life — both because that’s Humanity 101 and because a just nation requires that a healthy Trump stand trial for his high crimes and misdemeanors. But in keeping his medical condition secret from the public, POTUS is violating the (unfortunately) unwritten rules of American politics followed by Trump’s most immediate predecessors who disclosed all of their medical records. Much as Trump has violated every other modern democratic norm, whether it’s releasing his tax returns or divesting his vast business holdings.
Yet even by Trumpian standards, the real state of the president’s health has always been shrouded in a gaslit fog of obfuscation. As a 2016 candidate, Trump introduced the world to his eccentric private physician, Dr. Harold Bornstein, a gastroenterologist who looked like a character edited out of The Big Lebowski as too unbelievable. Bornstein wrote in a December 2015 letter that Trump “will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency” — a statement he later confessed the candidate himself had dictated to him over the phone.
Not long after Trump became president in 2017, Bornstein blabbed to a journalist about prescribing Trump hair-growth pills. Soon, Bornstein told NBC News, Trump’s longtime bodyguard, Keith Schiller, and a lawyer for the Trump Organization showed up at the doctor’s Manhattan office and cleaned out all of Trump’s medical records. Bornstein called it an unwelcome raid and told NBC he felt “raped, frightened, and sad.”
A year later, Trump received his first presidential physical from Navy Rear Adm. Dr. Ronny Jackson, who spent an hour at the podium gushing how healthy this fast-food-craving, rarely exercising septuagenarian was, stating that “[h]e has incredible genes, I just assume,” and that — despite appearances — his weight was 239 pounds, just one pound less than obese. Trump later tried to make Jackson his secretary of Veteran Affairs, a huge career leap that was derailed by a probe into alleged drinking, abusive behavior, and ease with a prescription pad.
So Dr. Conley may come off well in that comparison. yet the reality is that America’s never been given an honest picture of the president’s health. That’s concerning, but it also drives home a much more important problem with this presidency. For four years, Trump has been waging a much broader war on objective reality. With the walls of impeachment closing in, the president is now hoping that untruth will set him free.
As more and more Americans turn to the literature of authoritarianism to understand why various forms of “never again” are happening again in the 21st century, one clear tenet is that autocracy flourishes when the autocrat can convince the public that his utterings — even patently absurd ones — are more powerful than any so-called truth.
“Saying something obviously untrue, and making your subordinates repeat it with a straight face in their own voice, is a particularly startling display of power over them,” Jacob T. Levy, professor at McGill University, wrote recently in reaction to the Trump presidency. “It’s something that was endemic to totalitarianism.” In other words, the president’s ability to humiliate his supporters and frustrate his opponents with barely transparent BS is the ultimate power play.
And rather than be humbled by the Ukraine scandal and the growing likelihood that he will become just the third American president to be disgraced with impeachment, Trump and his allies have been turning up the dials of authoritarianism to 11 recently, such as the president defying his own Pentagon to pardon three convicted or accused U.S. war criminals. Then there was last week’s stunning speech by Attorney General William Barr that glorified an all-powerful executive branch and went to a 1930s Europe playbook in divisively insisting that only their leftist opponents are “engaged in the systematic shredding of norms and the undermining of the rule of law.”
The ultimate target of this assault is the impeachment inquiry on Capitol Hill. Again this week, a steady parade of truth-telling diplomats, public servants, and even a military man are laying out the increasingly impossible-to-dispute case that Trump and his cronies used military aid and other official actions to try to extort a political favor from Ukraine. Trump can’t win on the facts, but he can get off if he demolishes the very concept of truth itself — that with so many claims from the “fake news,” he alone is the only authority on what did or didn’t happen.