WASHINGTON – Less than six months from Election Day, the Trump campaign is deeply concerned that the president of the United States next year could be suffering from dementia.
No, not the 73-year-old who confuses his father and his grandfather, claims his actions during the pandemic have saved “billions” of Americans and even suggested people should inject themselves with disinfectants to cure the coronavirus.
It’s the other guy, 77-year-old presumed Democratic nominee Joe Biden, whose gaffes and verbal miscues are apparently proof that he is not mentally fit to occupy the nation’s highest office.
“I don’t think he remembers what he did yesterday,” Trump said of Biden in a recent interview with Sinclair Broadcasting. “He’s not mentally sharp enough to be president.”
The strategy is obvious, said David Axelrod, who led former President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign. “He can’t win a referendum on his own performance and so he has to try and disqualify Biden,” he said. “And his fundamental argument appears to be that Biden lacks the mental acuity and physical stamina to lead the country and restore the economy.”
Biden, for his part, has laughed off the suggestion that he has “lost a step.” In a CNN interview Tuesday, Biden turned the question back toward Trump: “Talk about a guy who’s missing a step. He’s missing something.”
Trump campaign officials would not respond to queries about their efforts to question Biden’s mental fitness, which has been a major component of their overall attack against the former vice president ever since Trump himself recycled the “Sleepy Joe” insult he had originally used against former Indiana Sen. Joe Donnelly.
He can’t win a referendum on his own performance and so he has to try and disqualify Biden.
David Axelrod, leader of Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign
On May 15, Trump campaign staffer Abigail Marone ridiculed Biden’s interview on Snapchat in a press release. “He can barely get through an appearance without getting lost or telling people not to vote for him,” she wrote.
On April 28, the Trump campaign’s rapid response director Matt Wolking posted a video clip of Biden’s interview with a Miami television station in which he states: “My son’s business dealings [in China] were not anything what everybody that he’s talking about, not even remotely.” Wolking added the comment: “I’ve watched this approximately 15 times now and it cracks me up every. single. time.”
In an April 23 interview on Fox News, Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale called Biden a “gaffe machine” and claimed he couldn’t remember when the Sept. 11 attacks had taken place. “We almost can’t decide what gaffes to put up every day, there are so many of them,” Parscale said.
As it happens, April 23 was also the day of Trump’s infamous soliloquy from the White House briefing room in which he suggested that injecting disinfectants and inserting lights into a COVID-19 patient might cure the disease.
“So, supposing we hit the body with a tremendous — whether it’s ultraviolet or just very powerful light — and I think you said that that hasn’t been checked, but you’re going to test it. And then I said, supposing you brought the light inside the body, which you can do either through the skin or in some other way,” Trump said. “And then I see the disinfectant, where it knocks it out in a minute. One minute. And is there a way we can do something like that, by injection inside or almost a cleaning. Because you see it gets in the lungs and it does a tremendous number on the lungs.”
Trump initially received a bump in his approval rating as the pandemic struck the country, but his remarks that day were followed by a quick decline. His approval ratings are now back to the low 40s, where they have been much of his presidency.
The Lysol and lights comments, though, were just the most well-known in a large and growing collection of nonsensical and erroneous statements he has made about COVID-19.
On April 1, Trump said, “Other countries tried to use the herd mentality,” when he likely meant “herd immunity.”
The next day, he stated: “I think also in looking at the way that the contagion is so contagious, nobody’s ever seen anything like this where large groups of people all of a sudden have it just by being in the presence of somebody who has it. The flu has never been like that.”
On April 15, he said his favored drug, hydroxychloroquine, “prevents the immune system from overreaching to the virus.”
On May 8, he expressed surprise at how a medical test might show different results at different times. “Katie, she tested very good for a long period of time and then all of the sudden today she tested positive,” Trump said of press aide Katie Miller. “This is why the whole concept of tests aren’t necessarily great.”
And through the whole period, he has continually referred to the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic as having taken place in 1917.
Trump’s misstatements, of course, began long before the coronavirus outbreak. He has repeatedly claimed his father was born in Germany, when in fact it was his paternal grandfather. He called the CEO of Apple “Tim Apple” during a White House meeting, rather than Tim Cook, and then spent days claiming he had not made a mistake but was just using shorthand. Another time, he appeared unable to say the word “origins” correctly, continually pronouncing it “oranges.” He has claimed that wind turbines cause cancer and that the F-35 fighter plane is literally invisible, when in fact it is merely difficult to see on radar.
Related reports of Trump’s inability to focus or understand details about topics even led him to take an Alzheimer’s screening test during his 2018 physical exam, which he then claimed he had aced with a perfect score. The White House did not mention Trump retaking that screening at his 2019 physical in February or during his sudden, unexplained visit to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in November.
Rick Tyler, a Republican political consultant who worked on Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign in 2016, said medical tests are not necessary to see what’s plainly visible each time Trump speaks. “Trump is not only in physical decline, which is obvious, he is in mental decline. He’s not sharp. He gets details wrong,” Tyler said.
He lies and projects because that’s what narcissistic psychopaths do. Fish swim, dogs bark, and Trump lies and projects.
George Conway, the husband of a top White House aide to Trump and himself a prominent Trump critic, said the president’s attacks on Biden’s mental acuity should not be considered a strategy because Trump is not capable of one. “I wouldn’t call it a tactic. He lies and projects because that’s what narcissistic psychopaths do,” Conway said. “Fish swim, dogs bark, and Trump lies and projects.”
Indeed, that Trump “projects” his own failings on his rivals and critics has been a widespread observation for years. Despite keeping the lightest campaign schedule of any of the Republican candidates running in 2016, Trump called former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush — known for his 16-hour workdays — “low energy.” Despite running a charity that enriched himself and facing numerous lawsuits for fraud, Trump called Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton “crooked.” And despite near-daily dishonesties on matters large and small, Trump called Cruz “Lying Ted.”
Cruz addressed that himself the day he ended his presidential candidacy in 2016. “Whatever he does, he accuses everyone else of doing,” he said in an extended critique. “This man is a pathological liar, he doesn’t know the difference between truth and lies. … In a pattern that is straight out of a psychology textbook, his response is to accuse everyone else of lying.”
Trump’s attacks against his opponents appeared to work for him in the 2016 primary and general election, but it is unclear whether attacking Biden for his verbal slips is helping Trump or having the opposite effect.
Recent polling shows Trump losing support from voters over 65, particularly among women in that cohort. Trump comfortably carried that age group against Clinton in 2016, 53% to 44%.
“If the Trump campaign thinks the answer to their precipitously falling support is to bank on a smear that’s failed for over a year and double down on the subject of mental acuity after all of this, then frankly, maybe it’s not just Donald Trump who’s ‘missing something,’ as the vice president said yesterday,” said Biden campaign spokesperson Andrew Bates.
And former Obama aide Axelrod said all of the time and energy Trump has invested in questioning Biden’s mental sharpness could be quickly undone.
“Biden can pull the rug out from under him with active appearances, sharp media and strong debate performances,” Axelrod said. “It also may be hard for a president who touts disinfectant as a COVID-19 treatment and regularly says bizarre things to hold himself up as the portrait of coherence.”
Calling all HuffPost superfans!
Sign up for membership to become a founding member and help shape HuffPost’s next chapter