Saunders: Press more deferential to Biden on health issues

Biden’s press secretary didn’t have to field the more intrusive questions posed to Trump’s spokeswoman.

By Debra J. Saunders / syndicated columnist

If you have any doubt about whether the White House press corps has a different standard for President Biden than it did for former President Trump, consider the press briefings that followed their first physicals as president at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. Biden’s physical occurred Friday.

On reflection, Team Trump was too transparent when then-Press Secretary Sarah Sanders brought Dr. Ronny Jackson, then physician to the president, to the briefing room podium where he answered press questions for nearly an hour in January 2018.

Here’s a sampling of some of the more egregious press questions.

• “Are you confident of his prostate health?”

• “There have been reports that the president has forgotten names, that he is repeating himself. Are you ruling out things like early-onset Alzheimer’s? Are you looking at dementialike symptoms?” (Jackson disclosed that Trump had been given the Montreal Cognitive Assessment test and scored 30 out of 30.)

• “Do you have a life expectancy range for him based on his results?”

• “Did you see any evidence of bone spurs?”; a reference to the cause for Trump’s fifth Vietnam-era draft deferment. (Jackson said the medical team didn’t check for bone spurs.)

• “Did you take a waist measurement for the president?”

• Given Trump’s age, then 71, “Will you give cognitive testing in the future?”

• “Does he take any sleep aids?” (Yes, Ambien occasionally during foreign trips.)

• “How much sleep does he get on average?”

• “Does he watch too much TV?”

• “Do you have any concerns about the president’s use of Twitter?”

• “Is there anyone on the president’s medical team, such as a psychiatrist or psychologist, whose job it is to monitor the president’s emotional state or watch for potential psychiatric problems or indicators of those?” (“That falls upon me,” Jackson responded.)

CNN sent Dr. Sanjay Gupta to the briefing. Gupta challenged Jackson for asserting that Trump’s health was “excellent” for his age, given that Trump was taking cholesterol-lowering medication and Gupta saw evidence of heart disease and borderline obesity. (Jackson credited Trump’s health to “great genes.”)

Not all of the above questions are out of bounds, but the very number of questions about Trump’s mental state was over-the-top. If Sanders’ plan had been to make the press look like a pack of jackals to the GOP base, she succeeded.

Press Secretary Jen Psaki no doubt learned from the Trump experience. She did not usher physician to the president Dr. Kevin O’Connor into the briefing room after Biden’s recent physical.

Instead, Psaki released a six-page letter written by O’Connor after the briefing, which gave her license to avoid answering questions about it.

O’Connor offered that Biden “remains a healthy, vigorous 78-year-old male, who is fit to execute the duties of the Presidency.” (The next day, Biden turned 79.)

O’Connor also wrote that since the last year, Biden experienced more frequent “throat clearing,” probably because of esophageal reflux and allergies, as well as “perceptibly stiffer and less fluid” ambulatory gait.

The timing was fortuitous. Biden’s annual physical, which included a colonoscopy, was held during a packed news day that included the traditional Thanksgiving turkey pardon and House passage of the Build Back Better Act. That meant less time for questions on Biden’s physical; and most of those questions were about the logistics of the exam.

One reporter asked Psaki about a Politico/Morning Consult poll that reported 50 percent of voters surveyed did not agree with the statement that “President Biden is in good health,” and voters are almost evenly split on the question of if he is in “good mental health.” She then asked for Psaki’s take.

Psaki stepped past that question as if it were a bug.

There were no questions about the asthma for which Biden got five draft deferments.

There were no questions that referred to Biden’s two brain surgeries more than two decades ago, no questions about his atrial fibrillation or what O’Connor described as “moderate to severe spondylosis.” There was no question about the “mild sensory peripheral neuropathy of both feet” and whether it might have played a role in Biden fracturing bones in his foot while playing with a family dog a year ago.

Amazingly, there were no direct questions about whether Biden was given a cognitive test or if he had a psychiatric exam. No such tests were mentioned in the O’Connor letter.

Was the kid-glove treatment proof of bias, or did the press corps get played? Try: both.

Debra J. Saunders is a fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Chapman Center for Citizen Leadership. Email her at

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