In 1986, CBS reporter Lesley Stahl went with her husband and daughter for a valedictory meeting with President Ronald Reagan before ending her stint as a White House correspondent. (She would later return to cover George H.W. Bush as well). Before she went in, Stahl was told to ask no questions. When Reagan appeared, Stahl was faced with a befuddled man who did not seem to know where he was. According to her memoir and later conversations with Mother Jones, Stahl started pondering how she would tell the nation that Reagan had experienced significant cognitive decline. Then her husband, a screenwriter, started talking Hollywood with the former actor-turned-president. Reagan snapped into apparent focus, and Stahl shelved her plan to disclose what she'd seen.
I've been thinking a lot about Stahl lately, thanks to the latest round of speculation about President Donald Trump's mental health. For 18 months, I've joined many other disability justice activists in decrying such speculation as based in ableist ideas that associate Trump's cruelty, incompetence, and deception with some kind of easily diagnosable pathology. These armchair diagnoses have provoked tense and angry discussions, driving wedges between diverse segments of the progressive community. I’ve taken a hard line against this speculation. I don’t think it will unseat Trump. I do think it will make people with mental-health needs more likely to stay closeted. With the alleged deception and silence surrounding Reagan's Alzheimer's on my mind, though, I’ve had to admit that there might be some occasions where reporting on presidential mental fitness could be appropriate. Still, we can distinguish between ableist gossip and good, reliable, journalism. Let's set the bar high.
The question of Trump's mental capacity has been an issue since at least the summer of 2016. During the campaign, politicians and pundits alike speculated whether he was experiencing active symptoms of mental illness. This past fall, 27 mental-health professionals collaborated on The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump, violating the so-called "Goldwater Rule," the American Psychiatric Association's guidelines against assessing the mental health of a public figure whom they haven't examined, and from whom they haven't received consent. Most recently, based on largely amateur analysis of shifting speech patterns over 30 years, the conversation has moved from whether Trump is "crazy" to whether he's experiencing age-related cognitive decline. For example, Esquire columnist Charles Pierce responded to Trump's latest New York Times interview by writing, "In my view, the interview is a clinical study of a man in severe cognitive decline, if not the early stages of outright dementia."
Make no mistake, Trump is certainly the least fit person to be president in the modern era; possibly, he is the least fit person to be president in this country's entire history. Still, that was knowable long before he started running for the presidency. He's been behaving basically the same way throughout the last five decades of his public life. He lies, boasts, exaggerates, grifts, swaggers, spreads hate and division, and does whatever he can to improve his own fortunes while concealing his vast incompetencies and bottomless ignorance. None of these characteristics requires a pathology to explain. Trump's complete lack of fitness as president has nothing to do with whether he has any diagnosable conditions. Suggesting otherwise, in fact, gives him and his enablers medical cover, right when the focus should be on their corruption, bigotry, and incompetence.
I'd like to propose a "Stahl Standard" for talking about Trump's cognitive capacity. I think that Stahl should have reported what she'd seen in her last meeting with Reagan, and then brought the power of her news organization to bear to ask how often such episodes were happening, who was running the country when they did, and what diagnostic steps were being taken. I understand why she chose not to speak then: It was an era when certain respectful norms of propriety still held sway. In the Age of Trump, though, the GOP and its leader have abandoned all oversight and all transparency. By his own admission, Trump's doctor wrote his medical assessment of the candidate in five minutes while a limo waited outside. Trump hasn't released his taxes. Congressional oversight seems non-existent. So if a journalist or a source close to Trump has a direct observation, let's report it. Otherwise, all such speculations should cease.
I don't believe Trump's mental condition is all that relevant to his miserable performance as president. I believe he's always been a liar, a merchant of racism and sexism, and a person willing to exploit any perceived weakness for the sake of personal gain. The urge to pathologize his conduct says much more about the ableist biases of American society than whatever is going on in the president's brain. What's more, Trump's enablers will resist any such reporting. The best path to end the reign of Trump remains normal, high-energy political organizing. Still, as journalists, we can write what we observe, we can quote sources with eyewitness information, and take it from there.