At the time, the Montreal Cognitive Assessment — which includes animal pictures and other simple queries aimed at detecting mild cognitive impairment such as dementia — was intended to quell questions about Trump’s mental fitness. But in recalling it, Trump said he thought presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden would never be able to pass it and suggested challenging him to take the test, said the people familiar with Trump’s comments, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share private details.
The seeming non sequitur was part of Trump’s growing preoccupation in recent weeks over perceptions of his mental and physical health, at a time when critics have mocked him for episodes in which they say he has appeared frail or confused. The attacks Trump has previously levied against Biden — dismissing the former vice president as “Sleepy Joe,” secreted away in his basement and enfeebled — have boomeranged back on him, as opponents have seized on Trump’s own missteps to raise concerns.
Another sign of Trump’s unease came Saturday night in Tulsa, when the president devoted more than 14 minutes to regaling a campaign rally crowd with the tale of “the ramp and the water.” Eager to dismiss questions about his fitness after he struggled with a glass of water and walked unsteadily down a ramp following his June 13 commencement address at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Trump offered a revisionist history.
The ramp on that sunny day, Trump asserted, was as slippery as “an ice-skating rink.” But he “ran down” it nonetheless, he claimed, despite video evidence showing him shuffling down the incline haltingly. As for the water, Trump said, he used two hands to drink because he didn’t want to spill on his expensive silk tie.
“Anyway, that’s a long story, but here’s the story,” the president said, finally winding down. “I’ve lived with the ramp and the water since I left West Point.”
He had previously obsessed about the episode to aides in private and during a Wall Street Journal interview, when he brought the incident up unprompted and offered to produce the leather-bottom shoes he had been wearing that day, which he said were “not good” for ramps.
“In the middle of the worst economy in a century and with more than a hundred thousand Americans dead this guy is primarily concerned with not looking weak,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), referring to the death toll from the coronavirus pandemic. “And his endless, bottomless insecurity was onstage, in three dimensions, during that storytelling moment, for everyone to see. I’ve seen a lot of crazy things in the last four years but that display of juvenile behavior and self-regard will go in the Trump time capsule.”
In recent weeks, Trump has fixated on Biden’s physical and mental acuity, aides said, casting about for ways to attack his Democratic rival and stewing over media coverage that he believes makes him look weak or feeble.
Last week, Trump and his campaign team lobbied the presidential debate commission to have four debates, because they believe Biden will look weaker and will make more mistakes than Trump on the debate stage.
The president has encouraged advisers to attack Biden over his mental acuity, White House officials said, but some worry that doing so too aggressively could backfire and hurt him among senior citizens.
“For someone so obsessed with appearing strong, Donald Trump shows us every day just how weak he is,” Biden press secretary TJ Ducklo said in a statement Monday. “ … Donald Trump doesn’t care about the health or economic prosperity of the American people. He only cares about himself.”
Trump is attuned to any portrayal of him as weak. He was furious earlier this month after news leaked that he and his family were rushed to a secure underground bunker as protesters converged on the White House in the wake of the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man killed in Minneapolis police custody. He initially falsely claimed that he had simply visited the bunker to inspect it.
Trump has also refused to wear a mask during the coronavirus pandemic, despite his own government’s guidelines, and has regularly suggested that Biden and others who wear them are showing weakness or fear.
Flying to Tulsa on Air Force One Saturday, the president was fuming to aides about the small crowd size of his rally — about 6,000 people in a 19,000-seat arena — another form of weakness in his mind.
Trump’s critics have seized on his agita, taking every opportunity to needle him publicly. Last week, the Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump Republican group, launched a new 45-second ad that begins, “Something’s wrong with Donald Trump.”
“He’s shaky, weak, trouble speaking, trouble walking,” the narrator continues as grainy images flash by, including of Trump at West Point. “The most powerful office in the world needs more than a weak, unfit, shaky president.”
Less than 24-hours after the Tulsa rally, the group pushed out another video, mocking his smaller-than-expected turnout, and hitting similar themes: “Sad, weak, low-energy,” says the narrator. “Just like your presidency, just like you.”
Mike Murphy, a vocal Trump critic who is now a strategic adviser to Republican Voters Against Trump, said Trump’s obsession with never seeming weak belies a deeper insecurity, making this particular line of attack particularly devastating.
“And now the strong guy — the strength image — is melting and we found out how weak and needy he is,” Murphy said. “If it’s ‘Sleepy Joe,’ we have ‘Weak, Needy Donald’ and that is his kryptonite.”
The Trump campaign, meanwhile, has been running a similar playbook against Biden. The campaign released an ad last week called “Fortitude” that mocked some of Biden’s missteps.
“Joe Biden is slipping . . . Biden is clearly diminished,” the narrator says, against the backdrop of Biden seeming to stumble through remarks. “Joe Biden does not have the strength, the stamina and mental fortitude required to lead this country.”
White House spokeswoman Sarah Matthews rejected the idea that Trump shares any of the physical or mental weaknesses that he accuses Biden of possessing.
“I challenge anyone who absurdly questions this president’s health to spend one day trying to keep up with his rigorous schedule,” Matthews said in an email statement. “This president never stops — whether it’s working early in the morning or late into the evening.”
Doug Heye, a Republican strategist, said the challenge for the Trump team now is that they “always put themselves into this everything is the biggest ever, the greatest ever” box, making it difficult for Trump to countenance even the slight hint of weakness on his part. “What we’re seeing over the past few weeks is really the issue of what gets under his skin.”
Heye said that while he didn’t think the initial coverage of the West Point ramp or water drinking was particularly problematic, the president clearly did. “He has been rattled by the reaction to it, and it’s because it speaks to that issue of strength,” Heye said.
Reaching under his lectern in Tulsa during his reenactment episode Saturday, the president pulled out a glass of water and brought it to his lips with one hand, raising it to the crowd between sips as if toasting an achievement. Then he tossed it away to his side as his supporters roared with delight.
“Trump! Trump!” the crowd chanted in response. “Four more years! Four more years!”