Opinion writer

The Post reports: “The White House is struggling to contain the national discussion about President Trump’s mental acuity and fitness for the job, which has overshadowed the administration’s agenda for the past week.” Not to be flip, but it cannot silence what is self-evidently true.

The realization that Trump not only spends gobs of time watching TV and tweeting — but also does that in lieu of hours in the office performing tasks we expect of presidents (including learning something about the world) — won’t be easily dispelled, because it cannot be. (Even Sarah Huckabee Sanders, for whom no spin is too great, could not manage to deny the growing amount of “executive time” built into the schedule of a president whose attention span and concentration are so easily overtaxed.) The observation that he repeats a thought over and over in a seemingly endless loop cannot be dismissed — because he does this in public.

It’s silly for defenders to claim, “Well, I’ve seen him lucid!” The issue is not whether is he ever functioning normally but rather whether he sometimes does not.

The White House cannot do what one would normally do to combat concerns about a president’s fitness, intelligence and mental stability — put him out for open-ended news conferences or TV interviews with outlets that won’t lob softballs or allow him to filibuster. Let Fox News’s Chris Wallace, not one of the non-news “state TV” hosts, ask him questions. What’s his own Iran policy? What did he mean when he babbled on about health-care associations? What exactly is the “trade deficit”? Why is prior restraint not allowed in the United States? Where’s the plan to reduce the debt? Why does he continue to deny climate change when executive agencies unanimously say otherwise? The thought of such an outing — an “opportunity” to demonstrate his grasp of issues with no teleprompter — likely sends a collective shudder through the White House staff.

Let’s hear him acknowledge facts that contradict his often-stated convictions. His able CIA director, Mike Pompeo, recently said the president does accept (finally) the incontrovertible fact that Russia attempted to interfere with our election. Let Trump, then, without a script, tell us that without qualification. He can then explain what steps he has taken to ensure this does not occur again.

These aren’t gotcha questions or setups; they are the questions Trump should have been asked and compelled to answer since he got elected. His inability to construct a coherent sentence or explain his own positions (Is he for or against North Korea negotiations?) will not prove or disprove that he’s unfit (although his verbal repetitions are alarming); it will reveal how incapable he is after a full year in the White House of mastering the basic requirements of the presidency.

Oddly, we have not seen White House chief of staff John Kelly come out to defend the president’s fitness and desire to keep up with the demands of the job. Why, Mr. Kelly,  does the president start his day so late, and what exactly does Trump do during “executive time”? Why does he repeat claims that have been factually disproved or debunked, even by his own advisers? Does he read briefing materials? Does he become so enraged that his own aides give up attempting to reason with him? Does he ever recognize his own errors?

Short of a complete cognitive/mental examination of the president by credible doctors, we are not going to get a diagnosis that will convince Americans’ of his mental competence — or impairment. But what is evident is that the “game” — the dangerous and utterly inappropriate subterfuge — involved in hiding the degree to which the president does not function at the level that his predecessors did has ceased to work.

And let’s give up the pretense that, even if true, there is nothing wrong with the behaviors Michael Wolff and others have identified. If Trump’s conduct does not prove him unfit, there would be no need to disguise and cover it up. If his conduct was not so alarming, White House aides would say on record what they acknowledge off the record.

We come back to the central problem from which the president’s defenders and enablers cannot escape. It’s not just his critics who are alarmed by Trump’s capabilities and who doubt his mental acuity; it is also his own advisers, who then feel the need to keep up the appearance of a fit and competent president. Those who pooh-pooh Wolff’s book as nothing new miss the most important takeaway: Those who know Trump best don’t think he’s fit to serve. If they don’t trust him to be president, why should we?

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