Donald Trump claims that Hillary Clinton lacks “the strength or the stamina” to run the country. He questioned in a tweet this week why the media was not covering a coughing fit she had at a rally in Cleveland. His party’s chairman scolded her for not smiling enough.
And Trump has insisted that the former senator and secretary of state does not resemble a commander in chief: “I just don’t think she has a presidential look.”
The escalating attacks by Trump and his allies on Clinton’s vigor and appearance are providing new fodder for critics who say the real estate developer is trafficking in sexist stereotypes and fueling false Internet rumors in attempts to undermine his Democratic rival’s image with voters.
Many Republican strategists warn that the approach is perilous for a GOP nominee who already has low standing among women across the political spectrum, saying his jabs could resonate in a negative way for those who have encountered similar put-downs from men in their own lives.
For women who “have had to put up with inappropriate suggestions about their appearance or stamina, it probably doesn’t sit really well when they come out of the mouth of a presidential candidate,” said GOP pollster Whit Ayres, who is not supporting Trump.
Jackson Katz, author of the book “Man Enough? Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and the Politics of Presidential Masculinity,” said Trump is using a tactic similar to one he employed against his opponents in the Republican primary contest, when he mocked former Florida governor Jeb Bush as “low energy” and belittled “little” Marco Rubio. With Clinton, that approach also appears to implicate her gender.
“This attack on Hillary Clinton’s stamina, her energy, her health is a way of attacking her virility or vigor without coming at it directly,” Katz said. “Donald Trump is playing on the anxieties of a lot of men and women who are uncomfortable with the notion of a woman as a president.”
Trump campaign officials did not respond to requests for comment. But Kellyanne Conway, his campaign manager, told MSNBC last month that Trump’s remarks pale compared with the personal derision he fields from Democrats.
“Somehow it’s okay for them to insult this guy six ways to Sunday, every chance they get, and if he shoots back with one comment, it’s ‘Ahh, look at him, he’s attacking a woman, he’s taking on her health,’ ” she said.
The rumors that Clinton is hiding a medical condition are being aggressively pushed by conservative sources. The conspiracy website Infowars, pointing to an unclear photograph, published a story this week suggesting that Clinton was wearing an earpiece so that someone could feed her answers during a live NBC presidential forum Wednesday night. Donald Trump Jr., one of the candidate’s sons, tweeted a link to the story Thursday morning. There is no evidence of an earpiece in numerous photos from the event, and the Clinton campaign said there was no such device.
Earlier in the week, Donald Trump Jr. said questions about Clinton’s health were fair game.
“This is a person that, again, has a track record of not taking that phone call at 3 o’clock in the morning,” he told radio host Mike Gallagher, a dig at a Clinton television ad from her 2008 presidential campaign. “You need somebody who is going to be able to do this. Listen, if there is something that no one is ever going to say, it’s my father doesn’t have the energy to do this job.”
Donald Trump’s running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, has also been emphasizing the real estate developer’s strength, praising him on the trail as “a man with broad shoulders.”
The GOP candidate has been taking swipes at Clinton’s energy level for much of the year, describing her as “exhausted” and sleeping too much, citing no evidence. He routinely complains about the sound of her voice, at one point calling it “very shrill.”
The 70-year-old business executive has only intensified his remarks about his 68-year-old rival’s physical fitness in recent weeks. “She doesn’t have the strength or the stamina to make America great again,” he told supporters in Phoenix last week.
In an interview with ABC News on Monday, Trump maintained that Clinton does not look the part, saying: “You need a presidential look. You have to get the job done.”
The liberal group Emily’s List rushed to turn his words against him, tweeting images of Trump and comments he has made about women with the hashtag #ThatPresidentialLook.
“Women know exactly what he means when he thinks he is being coy about these attacks, and it’s just one more reason why we don’t trust and don’t like Donald Trump,” said Marcy Stech, a spokeswoman for the group.
Rob Stutzman, a Sacramento-based GOP consultant, said Trump could have avoided giving his opponents an opening if he had been more careful with his language.
“When there is the first woman nominee and her male opponent is saying she doesn’t look presidential, of course that can be taken as a reference to gender,” he said.
“If done with some nuance, you can raise reasonable questions about your opponent’s health, but Trump doesn’t have any nuance, so it’s been this brutal sledgehammer declaring she is unfit,” Stutzman added. “A smart campaign would have a reasonable third party raising those questions in a respectful way.”
Instead, some of Trump’s surrogates have gone even further than him, promoting unsubstantiated or debunked theories about Clinton’s health.
“I do know that there are 14, 15 videos of her that show her in very, very strange condition,” former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, a close adviser to Trump, told MSNBC’s Chris Matthews on Thursday.
On Friday, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.) told attendees at the annual Values Voter Summit in Washington that Hillary Clinton is “mentally impaired” and has “special needs” because of a 2012 concussion.
The speculation about Clinton’s health ratcheted up with the Sept. 2 release of documents summarizing an interview she gave the FBI this summer as part of its investigation into the handling of classified information. Clinton told agents that she could not recall every briefing she received following the concussion, which she suffered in a 2012 fall, the documents show.
“I think we need to know if she’s healthy,” conservative host Sean Hannity said on his radio show Tuesday. “She doesn’t seem to have a lot of energy. If she had that bad of a concussion that she can’t remember, I think we have a right to know if there’s any other damage in there, right?”
His guest, former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), concurred: “Has that recovered? Does she now have a better memory? . . . There’s a lot of questions that come out of all this that are kind of weird, frankly.”
Clinton’s team has dismissed such suggestions, accusing Trump’s campaign of “peddling deranged conspiracy theories.”
On Monday, Clinton told reporters that a recent persistent cough was due to seasonal allergies. Asked whether it would feed into rumors about her health, she said: “I’m not concerned about the conspiracy theories. There are so many of them I’ve lost track . . . and so I pay no attention to them.”
Among the unfounded rumors circulating online is that one of Clinton’s Secret Service agents is actually a doctor who carries a Diazepam pen in case she has a seizure. The Secret Service has said the supposed “doctor” is an agent who was probably carrying a flashlight.
Although both candidates have released letters from their personal physicians attesting to their health, neither has provided the kind of extensive medical records that Sen. John McCain did during his 2008 bid. The Republican from Arizona, then 71, made more than 1,000 pages of medical documents available to reporters, including details about the care he received while fighting cancer.
Clinton has released a two-page letter from her doctor detailing her current health, medical history, medications and family medical history, as well as her recovery from the 2012 fall.
Trump has distributed a four-paragraph letter from his doctor that contains few specifics but declares that he would “be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.” The doctor, a gastroenterologist, has since said in interviews that he wrote the note in five minutes and purposely injected it with over-the-top language.
The Republican candidate told ABC this week that he will release his full medical records, reversing a long-held position that he would do so only if Clinton did first. Trump and his daughter Ivanka are scheduled to appear on “The Dr. Oz Show” next week to reveal “his personal health regimen,” the show announced Friday; it was unclear if that would include a medical-records release.