During the first year of the Trump administration, the James Brady Briefing Room turned into an arena for excitement unseen since at least the days of Ron Ziegler. Yet Tuesday was still an especially surprising day—in large part because a White House official stepped to the lectern and proceeded to calmly, extensively, and openly answer questions at length from reporters.
That official was not Press Secretary Sarah Sanders, nor was it one of her deputies. It was the presidential physician, Rear Admiral Ronny Jackson, and his subject was President Trump’s Friday physical exam. The news was good for the president: Though Jackson said the president should lose some weight, he gave him a resounding bill of good health, as my colleague Julie Beck reports. He also announced that Trump had aced the Montreal Cognitive Assessment, a common test for mental impairment; my colleague James Hamblin explains that. Best of all, Jackson even praised Trump’s good genes, matching something Trump has been saying for years.
It was just the sort of performance that Trump has reportedly long desired from his aides. Jackson was charismatic and chummy, persuasive and detailed with reporters, and perhaps most importantly, he defended Trump to the hilt. Yet it was also just what reporters wanted: An interlocutor who would patiently and forthrightly answer question after question, for nearly an hour, without recourse to transparent lies or browbeating or insistence that he could not speak for the president, the trademarks of Trump’s spokespeople.
Never before has the Trump White House shown such transparency. There have been masquerades at it—stacks of paper arrayed when the president announced his supposed divestment plan, for example—but never the real thing. Even better for the White House, the messenger is highly credible, unlike the goofy Harold Bornstein, who examined Trump during the presidential campaign. Jackson is a respected doctor who took up his role during Barack Obama’s term, and Obama administration officials lined up to vouch for Jackson’s probity. There are reasonable questions to be asked—Is Trump stretching his height? How much does the Montreal Cognitive Assessment really tell us?—but Jackson’s reputation and detailed answers grant the report real gravitas.
In fact, not only has this White House never shown such transparency; perhaps no White House has done so. A briefing of this length and detail from the presidential physician is apparently novel. So, too, is the administration of the Montreal test, which Jackson said was a new addition to the regimen. That suggests that questions from critics about his mental fitness for the job got to the president.
It’s no surprise that given the good news and good messenger, the president would be eager for Jackson to visit the briefing room. But the sudden outbreak of openness raises questions of its own. Why can’t the administration always be this forthright? In particular, why can’t it be more open about the president’s finances?
Even as the president offers unusual transparency about his health, he remains far more secretive about his finances than any president since Watergate, which is especially notable because his finances are more elaborate and at greater risk of conflict of interest than his predecessors. Trump’s campaign claimed he could not release tax returns because he was under audit, but there is no legal reason an individual can’t release returns that are being audited, nor did the campaign ever offer any evidence he was really under audit. The campaign promised to release them later, but since the election the president has made clear he has no intention of releasing the returns, even as the White House makes highly dubious claims about how tax cuts might affect Trump’s own personal wealth.
The cynical reading is that Trump is willing to release his medical information because the results look good for him, and unwilling to release the financial information because it would look bad for him. But as Tuesday’s briefing demonstrates there’s an easy way to rebut that, and to get good press. Just release the returns and send Trump’s accountant to the lectern to field the questions that ensue. How about it, Mr. President?