Illness Aside, Trump’s No Genius

Terry H. Schwadron

Jan. 21, 2018

Now that the White House doctor has certified that President Trump successfully handled a cognitive test meant to detect some signs of mental deterioration, we’re left with the obvious conclusion.

Donald Trump can’t suggest that his wackiest tweets, his flip-flopping on policy positions, his unusual personal insistence on publicly insulting people, or his elitist, broad-brush rejection of informed decision-making has anything to do with early Alzheimer’s.

Instead, we can pin these tails directly on the president’s choice of behavior.

The president’s personality and mental acuity are on display now again with tweets masquerading as presidential leadership in the federal spending discords that have resulted in a government shutdown, where we want the players in Washington to be at their most sober, focused selves rather than rising to bait each other — though that doesn’t seem to be working.

Apparently, it was fine for Trump to blame former President Obama for not taking the lead in solving past interparty standoffs, and for Trump, in turn now, just to sit back now and fire potshots from the sidelines rather than getting all parties together to hammers out the needed agreement to end a shutdown of government.

Calling Democrats “obstructionist losers” and questioning their patriotism while flip-flopping on what actual policy choices would work just doesn’t bring about results. Both party leaders in Congress find Trump impossible to nail down on what he wants to end the dispute.

In the end, it’s less about Trump’s mental acuity than it is his judgment. The issue arises because of presidential beaming about his recent physical — and cognitive — exam.

One can quibble with Dr. Ronny L. Jackson’s interpretation of Trump’s perfect score on the Montreal Cognitive Assessment during Trump’s physical exam last Friday at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. The 10-minute exam that the 71-year-old Trump asked for, is designed to detect mild cognitive impairment, such as dementia, generally in older patients, and includes things like identifying animals from pictures.

“There’s no indication whatsoever that he has any cognitive issues,” Dr. Jackson said. “I’ve found no reason whatsoever to think the president has any issues whatsoever with his thought process.”

Of course, it doesn’t make the president a “stable genius,” as he proclaimed himself, either. As described, this assessment includes asking a patient to identify several animals, draw a clock with the hands at a certain time, copy a cube and recall a shortlist of words. It is not a psychological exam. Like other aspects of the physical exam, social media is filled with “yes, but. . . “commentary about the results, questioning whether Trump is overweight to obese levels and the degree to which the various markers showed less than excellent heart health. Whatever. Jackson is the doctor on duty; he has interpreted what the tests mean for the president’s health.

What it all leaves me with is that this super-narcissistic president must take responsibility for behavior that the rest of us find to be, well, noticeable and somewhat unreliable.

After all, you can show cognitive well-being while still being burdened by psychological conditions. And successfully handling 30 questions about time of day and animal outlines has little to do with an ability to listen to others, to seek out information towards understanding complex public policy issues, or to dope out what makes for political compromise and maneuvering necessary to make policy. At least we can eliminate early Alzheimer’s as a contributor. That leaves the need for the president and those who flock to his side to take responsibility for his abrupt statements and awkward actions.

Looked at in this way, the president has only himself to blame for confusions caused by wiggling between various explanations of support for American Nazis and white supremacists in Charlottesville, or for calling countries of non-white majorities “shitholes,” or for issuing personal insults for foes to whatever policy he happens to support in this half hour. The president then has only himself to blame for statements that fuel hate, that undermine access to health care or that create environmental hazards through a program of decimating regulation.

And looked at in this way, the president can be held accountable for misleading or false statements without the thought that illness has had an influence. So, the tax bill helped corporations first, not the middle class, and the travel ban indeed is aimed at majority-Muslim countries, and overturning net neutrality rules are for the benefit of big telecom businesses, not you and me. The president owns the fact that his “populist” agenda isn’t populist, and mostly seems to serve business and the wealthy.

More broadly, eliminating any mental issues, the president is totally responsible for confusing and offending foreign nations and their leaders, for making provocative comments to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, for alienating foes and friends alike, from rekindling ill effects in Iran, Russia and even China, to losing close ties with longtime friends like Britain, Germany and South Korea. If it is not an illness that is responsible for Trump to tell “Rocket Man” that Trump’s nuclear button is bigger than his, then these types of statements fall into a different category. I’ll call it irresponsible.

Congratulations, Mr. President. You can rest easy that your mind is going. Instead, take responsibility for what you say and do.