And with that, a mystery was born.
Trump was there for two hours, arriving at 2:47 p.m. and leaving at 5:03.
When the president arrived, his then-press secretary Stephanie Grisham told reporters that Trump was “taking advantage of a free weekend” to “begin portions of his routine annual physical exam.” After Trump left the facility, Grisham offered more details.
“After a quick exam and labs, the President is headed back downtown,” she said in a statement, noting that Trump remained healthy “as demonstrated by his repeated vigorous rally performances.” While at the facility, Grisham said, Trump greeted the staff and met with the family of a soldier wounded in Afghanistan.
Each week, the White House sends out photos from the president’s prior seven days. The following week, no photos of these encounters were provided, though Trump did tweet about it.
That this stop at Walter Reed happened without prior announcement was unusual. He’s gone twice this year on non-health-related business; both times, the trips were included in his public schedule. When he went for his checkup in February 2019, it was similarly included on his public schedule. Those times, he also traveled to the facility via Marine One. In November, he traveled by motorcade.
All of this spurred a bit of a mystery. Why the unannounced trip? Was it just a “free weekend”? (The previous weekend he was at Trump Tower in Manhattan and the following weekend at Mar-a-Lago, in Florida.) Or was there something more dramatic at play?
Over the next few days, Trump joked about the incident, disparaging the media’s curiosity.
“I went for a physical on Saturday,” he said at a Cabinet meeting on the following Tuesday. “My wife said, ‘Oh, darling, that’s wonderful.’ Because I had some extra time. Because it looks like January could be a busy month” — due to the impending Senate impeachment trial.
“I came back, my wife said, ‘Darling, are you okay?'” Trump continued. “‘What’s wrong?’ ‘Oh, they’re reporting you may have had a heart attack.’ I said, ‘Why did I have a heart attack?’ ‘Because you went to Walter Reed Medical Center.'” He later claimed that CNN had reported he “had massive chest pains.”
“I went — did a very routine — just a piece of it,” Trump said; “the rest of it takes place in January — did a very routine physical.”
He did not go back for the second part of his physical. There was no report released after his November visit, as there had been the preceding February. In June, Trump’s team did produce a memo memorializing the president’s health, including an assertion that the president had completed his physical at the White House. That report came at a useful time, politically: Trump’s halting walk down a ramp at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point earlier in the month raised questions about his health and fortitude. (Trump is the oldest person to serve as president.)
All a bit murky, but a mystery which eventually faded. Until Tuesday, when a new book from New York Times reporter Michael Schmidt was published. It included an interesting new detail about Trump’s trip to the hospital:
“In reporting for this book, I learned that in the hours leading up to Trump’s trip to the hospital, word went out in the West Wing for the vice president to be on standby to take over the powers of the presidency temporarily if Trump had to undergo a procedure that would have required him to be anesthetized. Pence never assumed the powers of the presidency, and the reason for Trump’s trip to the doctor remains a mystery.”
It’s not unheard of for the vice president to be prepared to assume the duties of the presidency while the chief executive undergoes a medical procedure. George H.W. Bush was briefly acting president in July 1985 as Ronald Reagan — at that point, the oldest person to hold the position — had surgery. But there was a big difference: the Reagan surgery was planned and telegraphed to congressional leaders in advance in accordance with the provisions of the 25th Amendment. Trump’s wasn’t, emerging only when reported by Schmidt.
That such a step was considered, implying that Trump would be incapacitated, implies that something more dramatic was afoot than a simple annual physical. What, though, remains unclear.
On Tuesday, Trump poured some accelerant on the story, with an out-of-left-field tweet on the subject.
This claim about “mini-strokes” was apparently spurred by author Don Winslow, who made the allegation in a tweet of his own. It was accompanied by a video showing Trump speaking with some difficulty in December 2017.
In short order, the White House released a statement from Trump’s physician, Dr. Sean Conley, bolstering the president’s denial.
“I can confirm that President Trump has not experienced nor been evaluated for a cerebrovascular accident (stroke), transient ischemic attack (mini stroke), or any acute cardiovascular emergencies, as have been incorrectly reported in the media,” Conley said. “The President remains healthy and I have no concerns about his ability to maintain the rigorous schedule ahead of him. As stated in my last report, I expect him to remain fit to execute the duties of the Presidency.”
Unfortunately for Trump, his track record with statements from physicians isn’t that great. During the 2016 campaign, his then-physician Harold Bornstein offered a glowing appraisal of Trump’s health — an appraisal he later admitted Trump’s staff had written. In 2018, his then-doctor Ronny Jackson was nearly as effusive, including an aside about Trump’s “incredible genes.”
An additional challenge for the president is that he has, for two elections in a row, attempted to cast his opponents as enfeebled or unhealthy. For months, he and his allies disparaged former vice president Joe Biden as mentally unfit, criticisms that faded somewhat following the Democratic convention. Four years ago, he and his supporters repeatedly attempted to raised questions about Hillary Clinton’s health.
One of the voices that helped boost the “Clinton isn’t well” narrative was Matt Drudge, who runs a popular political website. Over the course of Trump’s presidency, though, Drudge has become increasingly critical of the president, as made obvious in the stories he chooses to promote.
On Tuesday, he turned his spotlight on Trump’s physical health.
It seems safe to say that not everyone is convinced that last November’s trip was a non-issue.