Aug 29 2016

The Trump Doctor Letter and Clinton Health Conspiracies

clinton seizureThe health of the candidates for the presidency is considered fair game, which I think is reasonable. Being president is physically grueling. It requires stamina and if a candidate has health issues that can affect their ability to perform the job, and may also affect whether or not they are likely to live out their term in adequate health.

FDR famously kept his condition from the general public. He had polio when he was 39 (although some researchers think he may have had Guillain-Barre) and was essentially wheelchair bound. This would not affect his ability to function as president, but it was thought that if voters saw him in a wheelchair they would think he was less vigorous and perhaps even less manly.

Woodrow Wilson had a stroke in 1919, and the outside world was kept in the dark. His wife handled all his communication.

In retrospect it seems likely that Ronald Reagan was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease toward the end of this eight years in office. His wife and others close to him tried their best to cover for him, but it was clear he had lost his edge. He was later formally diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, which ultimately took his life.

John Kennedy suffered from Addison’s disease and chronic back pain that made him dependent on pain killers. These ailments were kept from the public.

While I do not think we should discriminate against someone just because they may have a medical or physical challenge, I agree that it is a good policy for candidates, in good faith, to voluntarily disclose their health status to the voting public.

Clinton Health Conspiracies

There are several conspiracy theories going around that Hillary Clinton is hiding serious health issues from the public. As far as I can tell from the information available, these conspiracies are all nonsense, fabricated to make a cheap political attack against Clinton.

One conspiracy holds that Clinton had a type of seizure on camera. Pharma bro miscreant Shkreli made a You Tube video in which he assures us his non-expertise led him to the conclusion that the video actually shows Clinton has Parkinson’s disease.

Both of these conclusions are wrong. One thing neurologists develop a genuine expertise in is looking at movements and determining their neurological origin. The video of Clinton’s strange head movement is clearly voluntary. She appears to be feigning extreme surprise at the question that was asked her. It is not a seizure, and it is not a movement disorder (Parkinson’s or otherwise). Those who conclude that it is simply have no idea about what they are speaking.

The second most cited piece of evidence is a photo that allegedly shows an aid (disguised as a security agent) holding a diazepam pen, ready to inject Clinton if she has a seizure. This is also nonsense. First, the picture does not show the object clearly enough to say what it is (although it is likely a flashlight, looking at other video).

Also, why would the “aid” openly carry the pen rather than just keep it in his pocket? ¬†That is a typical feature of conspiracy theories – they require the conspirators to occasionally be incredibly stupid so as to reveal the conspiracy.

Finally, most people with seizures do not need to be injected with anything when they have a seizure. That would only be done if someone is in status epilepticus – a continuous seizure that does not stop on its own. In these cases patients are brought to the emergency room and treated there. They are not treated in the field with an injection. That is a rare option that is only used in certain cases.

If Clinton not only had seizures, but had them so severely that she would need to be treated with an emergency injection in the field, then it is likely that she would have had an actual seizure on camera given how many hundreds of hours she has spent in front of people and cameras during this election alone. You simply can’t hide a real severe seizure disorder.

The best the conspiracy theorists have is one awkward moment and one blurry photo.

Trump’s Doctor Letter

Earlier in the campaign Trump released a letter from his personal physician giving his official statement about Trump’s health. Here is it.

Read the whole letter – some of the phrases seem odd. People have particularly noticed that Trump’s blood pressure is “astonishingly excellent.” His physical strength and stamina are “extraordinary.” His examination showed, “only positive results.” The letter concludes:

“If elected, Mr Trump, I can state unequivocally, will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.”

I have no reason to doubt that Trump is in excellent health for a man of his age. What caught people’s attention was the language used by an apparent professional. The doctor, Harold Bornstein, later admitted the letter was hurriedly written in five minutes. He also claims that, while the words are his, he apparently picked up some of Trump’s signature language and incorporated it into his letter.

Let me just say that the letter does not read like it was written by a physician. I understand there is a political context here and there may have been pressure for the letter to be glowing, rather than dry and professional.

This is why the letter is so quintessential Trump. If the letter were dry, careful, technical, and professional that would have served Trump’s purposes the best. The only thing the letter needs to accomplish is to officially document that Trump is in good health.

Rather, he produces a letter that is overflowing with typical Trump hyperbole. Of course the doctor cannot state “unequivocally” that Trump would be in better health than every president we have had so far.

Trump appears to be unable to resist any opportunity to inflate his self-assessment, even in his doctor’s letter. Whether the letter was written for the doctor, altered, dictated, or just heavily influenced, it is clear that these are not the spontaneous words of a physician writing an assessment of their patient. Trump has made a very simple thing into a controversy, casting doubt on his sincerity.


The current tradition (there is no law or policy) is for candidates to be candid and forthcoming with their medical history and current medical health. This is reasonable, in my opinion. It is justified, if nothing else, by the history of hidden health problems with American presidents.

How a presidential candidate talks about their health and the openness with which they release their health records is one more window into their character and the kind of president they are likely to be.

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