Donald Trump: a dangerous mind?

In Depth: doctors say the US president poses a risk, while supporters focus on his success

Trump prepares to address US soldiers in Tokyo
(Image credit: Photo credit: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

With 2018 barely under way, Donald Trump has already bragged about his “big” nuclear button, threatened to withdraw aid to both Pakistan and the Palestinian Authority, and bizarrely - even by gold-plated Trumpian standards - taken credit for US air safety.

Trump has also set off a firestorm of questions about his mental state, with The Atlantic magazine yesterday calling for a formal system to evaluate the president and “reassure concerned citizens that the ‘leader of the free world’ is not cognitively impaired”.

A new book by journalist Michael Wolff - due to be released next week - describes the president as a tantrum-prone juvenile. Wolff said he interviewed more than 200 sources, including former adviser Steve Bannon and ex-White House deputy chief of staff Katie Walsh.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

Whether Wolff’s book is based fact or opinion, the Trump man-child description may resonate with a number of those who have witnessed the president’s first year in office. There is now growing concern from many quarters that Trump - who spends his days on Twitter bragging to North Korea about the size of his nuclear button - is unhinged.

“There are potentially millions of lives at stake and untold death and destruction here,” James Clapper, former US director of national security, told CNN. “No one in the White House knows what is Kim Jong Un’s ignition point, where one of these tweets is going to set him off and he’s going to hit that button.”

The president’s off-the-cuff Boxing Day interview with The New York Times also raised alarm bells.

He comes across as “incoherent, authoritarian” and “uninformed”, says Vox reporter Ezra Klein. “The president of the United States is not well,” Klein adds.

Mother Jones writer Kevin Drum agrees, saying the interview shows that Trump “is not a man in full control of his mental faculties”.

Drum says: “He veers off into his Electoral College win constantly. He stops to insist there’s no Russian collusion at least a dozen times. He displays no knowledge of anything. It’s like talking to a third-grader.”

Inside politics

Trump’s media critics aren’t the only ones to express fears.

The New York Times’ Michelle Goldberg wrote in early December that reports from within the administration “all suggest an increasingly unhinged and chaotic president”.

Although Trump’s aides are trying to spin his behaviour, “they clearly expect [it] to get worse”.

Medical opinions about Trump’s state of mind are even more disturbing. More than a dozen US lawmakers held a two-day meeting with a Yale University psychiatry professor in December in order to discuss Trump’s fitness for office, Politico reported yesterday.

Dr Bandy X. Lee’s professional warning to Capitol Hill was, according to Politico: “He’s going to unravel, and we are seeing the signs.”

Lee is head of the National Coalition of Concerned Mental Health Experts and the editor of a collection of medical opinions called The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President. In their opinion, Trump is a “clear and present danger to the United States”.

The view from within

But is it fair to accept the opinion of journalists - some of whom may have never spoken directly to the president - or to rely on the expertise of health professionals who have not examined Trump or his medical records?

“Even if the country’s psychiatrists were to make a unanimous statement regarding the president’s mental health, their words may be written off as partisan in today’s political environment,” says The Atlantic.

Trump’s defenders clearly see things differently. The billionaire president has dominated his profession for decades, won the election, scored a major victory on tax reform and has shaken up a smug White House press corp.

Roger Stone, Trump’s former political adviser, told The Washington Post in November that Trump’s controversial comments are spontaneous.

“I just think you’re seeing the president as way too Machiavellian,” Stone says. “He doesn’t necessarily have a strategy. His instincts on the news cycle and how to tweak his enemies is extraordinary... He’s a master marketer, and the only thing worse than being wrong is being boring.”

Some in the media acknowledge, grudgingly, that Trump gets it right sometimes - including, arguably, last week when he supported Iranian protesters.

“Upending normalities should hardly be equated with being unstable,” Lawrence Martin writes in an opinion piece in The Globe and Mail. “He hasn’t changed much since his career in the private sector. Though he was called lots of things, he wasn’t called crazy then. So why are they talking about him being unhinged now?”

Trump is expected to have his first routine physical evaluation as commander-in-chief in late January, which could answer a few pressing questions about his mental fitness - but critics are not expecting too much.

While the medical records may provide some clarity, “no law demands their disclosure or that they are complete”, the Washington Examiner notes.

For now, the electorate will have to rely on the only public medical record available about the president’s neurologic status, which comes not from a psychiatrists but from Harold Bornstein, an upper Manhattan gastroenterologist. Bornstein’s initial doctor’s note described the 71-year-old Trump as “the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency”.

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.