Trump himself is to blame for some of the spread of the clips. The mainstream press typically shies away from these stories, unsure of how to cover odd moments like this in the absence of a clear pattern or a medical diagnosis. Often that means reporters just look away. (Consider the case of Ronald Reagan, whom many reporters understood to be declining in his second term, but whose symptoms went largely uncovered; he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 1994, five years after he left office.) But Trump fell victim to the Streisand effect, the principle that trying to debunk a negative story just brings more attention to it. Saturday evening, he tweeted:
The ramp was not especially steep, and it’s unclear why it would have been slippery—a general next to Trump didn’t stumble. And the president’s post just made the story fair game to cover. Beyond that, Trump’s repeated claims that Joe Biden is too old and doddering for the presidency mean that his own struggles will get additional scrutiny.
Yet there remains little actual information about Trump’s health on which to base any conclusions. This is not the first time questions have come up. Reporters puzzled over Trump’s handling of stairs in early 2017. In November 2017, he seemed to struggle with drinking from a water bottle at the White House. In November 2019, the president made a sudden and largely unexplained visit to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center near Washington, D.C. But official reports from the president’s physicians paint a picture of almost miraculous good health.
Outside of those physicians and those closest to Trump, who can really know whether he is suffering from some unknown physical ailment? The public arguably has a right to know about the president’s health. After his doctors downplayed the severity of a 1955 heart attack, President Dwight Eisenhower instructed aides to be fully transparent. But physical impairment doesn’t really bear on the ability to do the job of the president.
Franklin D. Roosevelt would have been unable to walk down the same ramp smoothly and without help. John F. Kennedy’s bad back sometimes made it impossible for him to walk without crutches. (Kennedy, unlike his predecessor Ike, concealed much about his ill health, as Robert Dallek reported in The Atlantic in 2002.) Former presidential nominees Bob Dole and John McCain both had limited use of their arms, after injuries they sustained while fighting in World War II and as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, respectively. Those injuries did not raise questions about their fitness for office. Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, who lost parts of both legs while fighting in Iraq, is reportedly being considered by the Biden camp for the vice presidency; she, too, might be unable to walk smoothly down a ramp—but that’s no knock on her, either.