When Donald Trump’s former doctor Harold Bornstein released a letter about the then-presidential candidate’s “astonishingly excellent” health in 2015, many couldn’t help but notice how Trumpian it sounded.
”His physical strength and stamina are extraordinary,” the letter read. “If elected, Mr. Trump, I can state unequivocally, will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.”
Now it turns out there’s a reason the letter was so in sync with the president’s hyperbolic tone: Bornstein says it was written by Trump.
“He dictated that whole letter. I didn’t write that letter,” Bornstein told CNN on Tuesday. “I just made it up as I went along.”
The revelations have thrust Bornstein, a long-haired, eccentric New Yorker with an oddball manner, back into an unflattering spotlight. When the letter was released, Bornstein, who was Trump’s physician for 36 years, assured the public that he was indeed its author. But Bornstein says he was prompted to reveal the actual scribe after learning that Dr. Ronny Jackson, Trump’s former White House doctor, had been accused of violating basic medical ethics.
Bornstein also told NBC that he was the victim of a “raid” by Trump employees in February 2017, when he says a Trump bodyguard and lawyer went into his office to take the president’s medical records.
Bornstein’s cascade of lies is strange and befuddling, like many of the scandals that have defined the Trump presidency. And if Bornstein indeed allowed for embellishments in the letter, then he acted unethically, using his position as a doctor to mislead the public about the health of the oldest incoming president.
But in at least one way, the debacle is not all that unusual: Presidents have always found ways to misrepresent their health, and their medical reports have long been divorced from reality.
We know surprisingly little about the true health of presidential candidates and presidents
History shows us that presidents and presidential candidates have a tenuous relationship with the truth when it comes to their personal health details.
“At present, we simply have no way of knowing whether the president is fit as a fiddle or at death’s doorstep,” said Dr. Jacob Appel, an assistant professor at Mount Sinai School of Medicine who has studied the medical histories of presidents and would-be leaders. “And the same applies to other high-profile political figures in both parties.”
That’s because presidents are entitled to the same patient privacy rights as other Americans, and it’s up to them what gets reported to the public, as I’ve explained with Vox’s Eliza Barclay. They’re under no obligation to share complete or detailed medical records. They also have an incentive to hide facts that may give rise to scandal or taint or weaken their reputation.
Appel went on: “We have absolutely no window into whether other candidates have dictated their medical clearances in similar ways or have released information selectively.”
This may help explain why, in looking back, we now know a number of past leaders were actually much sicker than the public knew. FDR’s paralysis was hidden from public view. Woodrow Wilson’s 1919 stroke, which left him incapacitated, was also kept from the public. Appel told me previously, “[Massachusetts senator and presidential candidate] Paul Tsongas and his physicians in 1992 created the impression that he had been cured of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which was not the case; he ultimately died of the illness five years later.”
So even if Bornstein is an eccentric figure, his actions were anything but. And we’ll probably have to wait some time before the mystery of Trump’s health is fully revealed.