Donald Trump's advocacy for the so-called "birther" conspiracy theory eventually led President Obama to release his birth certificate in 2011. And on Tuesday, the Clinton campaign saw fit to respond in detail to new conspiracy theories — into which Trump has also breathed life — about Hillary Clinton's health.
It did so early Tuesday afternoon by sending reporters the text of "Fake Clinton Medical Records," a story at FactCheck.org. It did again Tuesday evening, with a lengthy rundown of the theories, links to sources that debunked them, and an official statement from Clinton's doctor, Lisa Bardack — whose name appeared on forged "medical records" that had been spread online.
The proactive response from the Clinton campaign truly represents a new age in presidential campaigns — one in which one candidate feeds conspiracy theories about the other one and actually draws a response. Obama long declined to dignify the "birther" conspiracies that he wasn't born in the United States and their demands that he release his birth certificate, eventually relenting in the name of moving on and putting an end to the "silliness."
But the theories addressed in the Clinton campaign's release weren't the only ones it responded to Tuesday. It also denied a particularly dubious allegation about a member of Clinton's traveling entourage serving as an on-site doctor and carrying anti-seizure medication.
Seizures are one of many suggestions bandied about by conspiracy theorists when it comes to Clinton's health. The Associated Press's Lisa Lerer, who was next to Clinton during an alleged episode last week, responded to the theories by reporting that Clinton hadn't actually suffered a seizure.
Similarly, conspiratorial right-wing sites and social media users have pointed to a photo of a man accompanying Clinton on the campaign trail carrying a pen-like item in his left hand. They have suggested the item is actually a Diazepam pen, which is used to treat seizures.
Here is the image, from the Gateway Pundit blog:
Snopes.com has dealt with the problems with this theory, including the allegation that the man holding it isn't a Secret Service agent — and thus might be a member of Clinton's staff carrying important medication. It debunks the suggestion that the pin the man is wearing suggests he isn't Secret Service and is actually a doctor (some have even named the doctor, who bears no resemblance to the man in the photo):
Hillary Clinton's handler is [clearly] not Dr. Oladotun Okunola, but is he a different doctor being explained away as a Secret Service agent? The evidence here is also pretty flimsy. The only real "evidence" offered for that hypothesis is a photograph of the agent's supposed "medic" lapel pin, but the image is too blurry to positively identify it. However, a side-by-side comparison of the agent's pin and a "medic" pin shows that they are not the same.
On Tuesday afternoon, top Clinton aide Jennifer Palmieri tweeted a brief response, saying that the man is indeed a Secret Service agent and that the pen in question is just a plain old pen.
By responding to this particular allegation, one that didn't appear to have made it past right-wing conspiracy theorists online, the Clinton campaign suggests it's going to take a hands-on approach to debunking and/or responding to these conspiracy theories — even obscure ones. Combined with campaign officials' detailed response to other questions about Clinton's health — questions Fox News's Sean Hannity has taken a leading role in pushing in recent weeks — it's clearly a decision they've made.
The issue also probably wouldn't exist if Trump himself weren't participating in fomenting such questions. He has in recent days referred to Clinton's lack of "stamina" on the campaign trail. He has questioned whether she is too tired to campaign.
Trump's embrace of conspiracy theories in this campaign — up to and including passing along a strange National Enquirer report intimating that Ted Cruz's father might have been involved in John F. Kennedy's assassination — has confronted the media with an uneasy choice when it comes to how to handle the allegations. When a presidential candidate is talking about them, it's hard to ignore them. But theories like this were once the province of the political fringes online and largely ignored by the mainstream press, for fear of breathing life into wild allegations.
The Clinton campaign's decision Tuesday to confront them head-on suggests they see no other option — much as the media doesn't.