Everyone’s feeling a little frayed these days, but even by those standards, President Donald Trump seemed a little off on Saturday, as he delivered the commencement speech at West Point.
The speech was supposed to be a triumphant moment for Trump—he’d insisted on calling cadets back to the United States Military Academy, after they were sent home amid the coronavirus pandemic—but instead it raised questions about his physical fitness. The president seemed to struggle to drink out of a glass of water, then faltered while walking down a ramp from the dais.
Clips of the two moments circulated over the weekend—especially after Trump himself tweeted about his walk down the ramp, insisting that he was fine—raising questions about his fitness for office. But these questions, and the largely baseless theories to explain his behavior, seem to miss the point. Whether or not Trump can walk smoothly down a ramp says nothing about his ability to serve as president. The search for some sort of disqualifying physical ailment is a distraction. Trump has offered ample evidence to judge his dubious fitness for office over the past three years, regardless of how he sips water.
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 that I descended after my West Point Commencement speech was very long & steep, had no handrail and, most importantly, was very slippery. The last thing I was going to do is “fall” for the Fake News to have fun with. Final ten feet I ran down to level ground. Momentum!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 14, 2020
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.
Meanwhile, there is extensive evidence that Trump is unfit to serve as president for reasons that have nothing to do with his physical health. Trump lies prolifically. He has never bothered to learn the material he needs to perform his job effectively. He spends time that he ought to use administering the country on Twitter. He easily falls prey to conspiracy theories and misinformation. He churns through staff, and several former aides have questioned his ability to lead. His decisions are impulsive and poorly thought-out. He defames people on a roughly daily basis. He kowtows to Moscow. He corruptly uses his office for personal and political gain. He suggests injecting bleach to kill the coronavirus.
These are not the actions and the statements of a man who is temperamentally fit to lead the country. And although there is evidence of Trump losing a step—who, at age 74, hasn’t?—most of the flaws in his handling of the job are reflections of traits that he’s displayed for decades. Could one imagine an ailment that would cause physical affliction as well as mental impairment? Surely. But the best gauge of mental functioning is what’s already in plain sight.
Reporters should continue to press the White House on the Pollyannaish physical reports about Trump, and to scrutinize the president’s health. But engaging in long-distance diagnosis and parlor prognosis is hardly necessary. It doesn’t take an ableist perspective to see that Trump isn’t fit for the job.