“Trump disseminated false medical records to fool the public about his health.” That is a headline you have never seen, though you should have.
If you’ve gotten tired of hearing how something President Donald Trump did would have been a major or even career-ending scandal for any other candidate, I sympathize. But that fatigue is exactly the problem, because from the beginning of his run for president, Trump has been treated not just by different rules but by rules that indulge his most dangerous tendencies.
Yet at the same time, we allow him to manipulate us into chasing false charges he makes against other people. And if we don’t realize how pernicious this is, we’re going to keep making the same mistakes, especially in 2020 when Trump will have a Democratic opponent to slander.
As you may have heard by now, NBC News reported:
“In February 2017, a top White House aide who was Trump’s longtime personal bodyguard, along with the top lawyer at the Trump Organization and a third man, showed up at the office of Trump’s New York doctor without notice and took all the president’s medical records.”
That “New York doctor” is Trump’s former physician, Dr. Harold Bornstein, the source of the account. The “longtime personal bodyguard” is Keith Schiller, at the time a White House staffer.
This appears to be a clear violation of the law. Under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) they would have had to present Bornstein with a special form in which Trump authorized them to receive copies of his records, which they didn’t. They certainly wouldn’t be allowed to rifle through a doctor’s records and seize the originals, which is how Bornstein described what happened, calling it a “raid.”
Bornstein himself may have committed a HIPAA violation when he told the New York Times that he had prescribed a hair-growth drug for Trump. That article ran two days before Schiller’s visit to his office, suggesting the article (and Trump’s inevitable rage over it) is what prompted the visit.
The White House insists this is no big deal. Spokesperson Sarah Sanders said: “It would be standard procedure for the newly elected president’s medical records to be in possession by the White House medical unit, and that was what was taking place - is those records were being transferred over to the White House medical unit as requested.”
But that doesn’t seem true either. They could have just asked for a copy of Trump’s records to be sent over so he could be properly treated by the White House medical unit. Sending Trump’s bodyguard to New York to seize the originals is an entirely different matter.
In addition, Bornstein now admits that when he wrote a letter in December 2015 attesting to Trump’s good health, he was actually taking dictation from Trump himself.
Now here’s why this is important. At the time, everyone understood that was exactly what happened. The letter was not something any trained physician would write, and it was written in Trump’s distinctive sixth-grade braggadocio. It said “Mr. Trump has had a recent complete medical examination that showed only positive results,” that Trump’s blood work was “astonishingly excellent,” that “His physical strength and stamina are extraordinary,” and finally, that “If elected, Mr. Trump, I can state unequivocally, will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.” It could not have been more obvious that Trump was the actual author of the letter if it had been signed “Donald J. Trump, I mean Harold Bornstein.”
If Hillary Clinton had done that we would have been apoplectic, and rightfully so. But at the time, everyone treated the whole thing almost as a joke. Trump should certainly be more forthcoming, reporters said, but here’s this wacky-looking doctor with long hair writing this absurd letter, isn’t that hilarious! Well yes, it was comical. But a presidential candidate was hiding his medical situation from the public. And not any candidate, but the candidate who would become the oldest president ever elected, and who seems to eat nothing but fast food.
Yet at the very same time, the press not only treated Hillary Clinton’s health as a matter of utmost seriousness, it was quick to accuse her of being overly secretive and dishonest about it.
You may remember that in September 2016, Clinton had a bout of pneumonia. At a Sept. 11 memorial event on a hot day, she got lightheaded as she was headed toward her car, stumbling and being caught by aides. The reaction from the press was to treat it as an absolutely momentous event that not only raised profound questions about her fitness to be president but also showed how sneaky and deceitful she was for not announcing the illness to the press the moment it was diagnosed.
“Hillary Clinton Is Set Back by Decision to Keep Illness Secret” said the front-page headline in the New York Times the next day. On that day the cable TV networks ran a total of 13 and a half hours of coverage of Clinton’s health. Fox News went into paroxysms of speculation about the varieties of brain ailments Clinton might be suffering from. Politico published a photo gallery entitled “Hydrated Hillary: 9 times Clinton quenched her thirst,” just to show her bizarre water-drinking behavior that surely must have been concealing something.
All this demonstrates the shifting standards candidates are treated with, which somehow kept working to Trump’s benefit. On one hand, there’s a presumption that politicians tell the truth most of the time, so the things they say should be treated with a basic level of respect. Which means that when someone like Trump comes along telling obvious, constant lies, those lies just get passed on to the public over and over. Any particular lie gets discussed for a while, then set aside with a chuckle and a shake of the head. We sure are living in crazy times!
Yet when he makes false charges about others, as he regularly does, they’re given what is functionally the same respect as any other statement, to be passed on and repeated until concrete evidence emerges to prove they’re false.
Trump understands all this perfectly well. As he once told his then-toady Billy Bush when Bush called him out (privately) for lying about how great the ratings for “The Apprentice” were, “People will just believe you. You just tell them and they believe you.”
While this is something that should concern us each and every day, we need to be particularly on guard when the 2020 election begins. Trump is going to run a scorched-earth campaign against the Democratic nominee, not just of sneering ridicule but of innuendo and outright slander. One way we can prepare for it is to stop treating the lies Trump tells - like putting out false letters about his medical condition - like they’re anything less than the scandal they ought to be.
Paul Waldman is a contributor to The Plum Line blog at the Washington Post and a senior writer at The American Prospect. Follow him on Twitter @paulwaldman1.