Harold N. Bornstein, a New York gastroenterologist, released a 2015 statement to his fellow citizens about the health of a presidential candidate. “I have been the personal physician of Mr. Donald J. Trump since 1980,” he wrote. He reported that across those decades, his patient had “no significant medical problems,” that an exam showed “only positive results,” and that “his physical strength and stamina are extraordinary.” If elected, he concluded, “Mr. Trump, I can state unequivocally, will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.”
The statement triggered suspicion at the time. That isn’t how doctors speak. And how could any doctor accurately identify the healthiest person ever elected president? The letter sounded like the sort of thing that a hack propagandist would write. And Trump would go on to make Hillary Clinton’s health a campaign issue.
My colleague James Hamblin, who possesses a medical degree and doesn’t suffer fools, would publish a prescient August 2016 article, “The Bizarre Words of Donald Trump’s Doctor,” noting, “To readers with a keen eye, the hand of Trump might seem evident, particularly the descriptors.” He added, “So, is Trump in good health? There is no legal requirement mandating transparency in that regard. With the bizarre letter before us, he has not been transparent. That may be the best that can be said. I’m less concerned with his health than his character.” (As scathing was National Review’s Charles C.W. Cooke, who turned to satire.)
Traditionally, magazines have given informed staffers the leeway to share considered judgments of that sort with readers in service of helping them to understand the world. In contrast, newspapers, TV networks, and NPR have shied away from rendering such judgments in deference to longstanding aspirations to “objectivity.”
Both approaches have their place.
In the case of the physician’s letter, the norms of some major news organizations caused journalists confronted with obvious bullshit to publish under headlines like these:
ABC News: “Trump Would Be ‘Healthiest Individual Ever Elected’ President, His Doctor Says”
NBC News: “Trump’s Physician Says His Health Is ‘Astonishingly Excellent’”
CBS News: “Doctor says Trump would be ‘healthiest individual ever elected’ to presidency”
USA Today: “Doctor says Trump would be ‘healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency’”
NPR: “Doctor: Trump Would Be ‘Healthiest Individual Ever Elected’ President”
Some outlets signaled in the body of their stories that readers should be skeptical. “The full letter is written in true Trumpian fashion, full of hyperbole and boasting of greatness,” NPR noted. “The whole letter is very odd, and very unlike ones typically released by presidential candidates—though Trump of course hasn’t followed a typical campaign model by any means.” Others, like ABC, published credulous items.
Come August 2016, Bornstein was still claiming authorship of the letter. “I thought about it all day and at the end, I get rushed, and I get anxious when I get rushed,” he said in an NBC News interview. “So I try to get four or five lines down as fast as possible so that they would be happy. I think I picked up his kind of language …”
This week, he changed his story, declaring that Trump came up with the language. “He dictated that whole letter … and I would tell him what he couldn’t put in there. I didn’t write that letter,” he told CNN. “I just made it up as I went along.” That account makes Bornstein a particularly odious kind of liar: the kind whose mendacity undermined democracy by flagrantly misleading the electorate.
But as my colleague Jim Hamblin noted in his followup article, published this week, what matters most is not Trump’s health nor Bornstein’s behavior:
What matters most are the actions of Trump, now the most powerful person in the world. If he indeed dictated this letter—and this is well supported even by a glancing linguistic analysis—then it is his ethics that should be called to question … Billions more people are implicated if this letter is evidence of Trump’s willingness to lie to circumvent and subvert a critical vetting process, to baldly misrepresent himself by using people like Bornstein for his own gain. The relevance of Trump’s actual health status—whether or not he takes a medication for hair loss, and if his body-mass index does indeed qualify him as “obese”—all of this sort of data pales compared to what such an act of forgery would say about his morality; his sense of honesty, transparency, decency, and accountability; his actual fitness to serve as president of the United States.
During his rise, Trump put the press and the public in an impossible position by lying in a manner that was both flagrantly obvious to anyone paying close attention and often impossible for news organizations to prove as a settled matter of fact. Most people, even in politics, are too decent to lie as he did. They possess normal consciences and senses of shame. Trump was willing to exploit the fact that humans extend some general presumptions of trust to function in this world. Like a con man, he benefitted by betraying that trust more shamelessly than others.
In politics, the skeptical approach that Hamblin took to Trump’s mendacious claims of yore are preferable, I’d argue, to the credulous headlines and articles that some others wrote. Still, on other occasions, different journalists have made regrettable errors by going beyond what they could prove empirically and offering analysis.
While there is no perfect journalistic approach to deploy in all cases—and something to be said for a diversity of approaches—Trump had flagrantly told so many decades of untruths to the public by December of 2015 that he should long before have ceded the benefit of the doubt that allowed any unverified, advantageous claim about him to make headlines, even atop stories that went on to hint at their dubiousness.
That his lie is now exposed, like so many before it, is the latest opportunity for Republican elites to level with their base: The president and many of his allies are liars—and while they are hardly the first political elites to ever tell lies in national politics, it is partly their unusually flagrant and shameless mendacity that cause the press to treat them with more skepticism and hostility than bygone GOP presidents.
Sometimes, that skepticism and hostility lead journalistic organizations astray. Their analysis is biased or wrong in a way that unfairly cuts against the Trump administration. The fallibility of all humans, including journalists, is as extant now as ever. But Trump also lies frequently in ways that will cause the public to be misinformed if the press covers him with anything less than open skepticism, even as he turns the public against the press to get away with lies in the face of pushback.
Trump is the root of the problem. And his minor enablers, like Bornstein, and his major enablers, like Vice President Mike Pence, harm America with their complicity in the lies that the president tells the citizens he is meant to serve.