Following a carefully manicured, four-day convention in which Donald Trump’s chief lieutenants branded him as an avatar of stability and Joe Biden as the pied-piper of race riots, the president did what he always does: He casually disposed of his team’s messaging in the service of nursing personal grudges.
This week, it was about how his brain isn’t dying.
“It never ends!” the president tweeted Tuesday, in denial of reporting and speculation that his stated reasoning for going to Walter Reed in November was a bogus cover for a much more serious procedure. “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.”
The pushback didn’t end there. Some of Trump’s top officials were soon enlisted to aid in the effort to assure the public that the president’s brain was, indeed, functioning incredibly well. Shortly after Trump’s tirade about “mini-strokes,” his re-election campaign called for CNN to fire an analyst who asked his Twitter followers whether the president was hiding a past stroke from the American public.
“CNN should fire Joe Lockhart, a lifetime failure who thought it was a great idea for fellow loser Michael Dukakis to put on that stupid helmet, for knowingly pushing a conspiracy theory about President Trump’s health,” an unsigned statement from the campaign read. “If another CNN employee said similar things about Barack Obama they’d be fired immediately, so the same standard should be applied here.”
Lockhart, who served as White House press secretary in the Clinton administration, denied that he was spreading information in a subsequent tweet, saying that the post was “just a question.”
Whether the president’s campaign brass went ahead and released the statement knowing it would please the boss or if Trump personally ordered it up himself wasn’t immediately clear. But it also was largely immaterial, too. Numerous current and former senior Trump aides say that officials will often start drafting these types of intemperate statements even absent an explicit directive from the president, because they all know that Trump will most likely demand such action anyway.
“When you sign up for a job in comms for [Trump], you sign on to play defense on any number of absurd things,” said a former senior administration official. “That includes pushing back aggressively on perceived or real attacks on his mental fitness, which he has [at times] said is an intolerable attack not just on him, but on his administration and his supporters.”
The entire episode was, at one level, another window into the doubts and insecurities that have fed the president’s rise through the business and political worlds. They also were just the latest example of why Democrats and many Republicans believe his campaign is stuck. Having tried to put his opponent on defense over rioting and looting in several cities, Trump decided to turn the conversation to a topic that no one seemed to be paying attention to; and one that was not particularly beneficial for his electoral prospects.
Joe Biden’s presidential campaign was practically thrilled to play along, arguing that Trump’s focus on his own mental acuity was rooted in his failures on a more pressing health matter: the coronavirus pandemic that now has a U.S. body count of more than 185,000.
“Trump is flat out running on upheaval happening on his own watch,” said Andrew Bates, the Biden campaign’s director of rapid response. “The truth is, Donald Trump has failed our nation so abysmally that he is now the only president in American history for whom derailing his own self-damaging message with bizarre theories about ninjas and sudden rants about his own health are probably the closest thing he can get to a win.”
Even those merely reporting on Trump’s own denial about the “mini-strokes” were targeted by the president. When the Drudge Report—which had zeroed in on Hillary Clinton’s supposed health issues in 2016—led the site on Tuesday with Trump’s furious denial, Trump blew up again. “Drudge didn’t support me in 2016, and I hear he doesn’t support me now,” he tweeted. “Maybe that’s why he is doing poorly. His Fake News report on Mini-Strokes is incorrect. Possibly thinking about himself, or the other party’s ‘candidate.’”
The president’s fixation on the brain he once dubbed “very good” comes at the expense of the messaging of the Republican National Convention that concluded just last week. While a recent tweet about “Joe Hiden,’” a new nickname that Trump appeared to be taking for a spin on Wednesday, highlighted the former vice president’s supposed desire to “obliterate” the American way of life, the RNC’s closing-night messaging—that Biden is a Trojan horse for radical leftist proposals like defunding the police and letting rioters loot America’s suburbs—has apparently taken a backseat for now to the president’s persistent need to avenge any slight, even one he pulled out of thin air.
Those close to Trump aren’t surprised at all by this turn, given how all-consuming his emphasis on defending his honor and lauding his own health has become. For years, his own physical and mental well-being have been extremely touchy subjects for this president, leading to him having various prolonged freakouts in public and behind closed doors.
Trump has privately groused to friends, family, and aides that New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman accused him of having Parkinson’s disease this summer, according to two people with direct knowledge of the matter. Those sources say that the president has been stewing about this for nearly three months, and he still hasn’t let it go, bringing it up in the West Wing as recently as last week, one of these sources said.
Haberman, however, hasn’t accused Trump of having Parkinson’s. In June, she wrote a Times story about how “President Trump faced new questions about his health… after videos emerged of him gingerly walking down a ramp at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and having trouble bringing a glass of water to his mouth during a speech there.” The word “Parkinson’s” does not appear in the article, but in Trump’s mind, that has somehow translated to Haberman tagging him with the degenerative disorder.
The president’s intense focus on these matters during the final stretch of the 2020 presidential race—and at a time when the coronavirus pandemic is still raging, the U.S. economy is still gutted, and racial and civil unrest continue to swell around the country—has mystified some longtime Republican operatives, even as many of Trump’s own top advisers have given up on attempting to rein in their candidate’s excesses.
“It’s not a wise use of time, no,” said Doug Heye, a veteran GOP strategist and a former top official at the Republican National Committee who has publicly noted his antipathy for the president. “But I think we’ve seen several years ago that Donald Trump is not going to pivot… We said all these things wouldn’t work for Trump, but he won. Proving that negative is hard to do a second time around. His answer to everything is, ‘You said I shouldn’t do these things and I wouldn’t win if I did these things, and I won.’”
Still, some of Trump’s own senior staffers seem ready to turn the page on the president’s recent tantrums. Reached for comment on this story Wednesday night, the Trump campaign’s communications director Tim Murtaugh sent along a 122-word comment. However, none of it addressed the mental-health-related nature of the inquiry, and instead stayed on what was supposed to be Trump’s message this week: mainly, blasting the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee for being “too weak” in the face of “riots staged by left-wing criminals in Democrat-run cities” and “the radicals who are in charge of his party and his campaign.”