How Conspiracy Theories About Clinton’s Health Turned Into a Campaign Issue

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Clinton wears special glasses during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing in January 2013.Photo: Andrew Harrer

In an effort to dissuade anyone still planning to vote for the “crooked” “co-founder” of ISIS, Donald Trump has added a new argument to his stump speech: Hillary Clinton lacks the mental and physical health required for the presidency. Over the weekend, Trump described Clinton as “unhinged” and “unbalanced,” and in addresses on Monday and Tuesday, he said she “lacks the mental and physical stamina to take on ISIS, and all the many adversaries we face.”

The Clinton campaign responded for the first time on Tuesday, linking reporters to a FactCheck.org report debunking photos of fake Clinton medical records that have been circulating online. Dr. Lisa Bardack, the doctor named in the fake documents, also released a statement denying that she wrote them.

As Secretary Clinton’s long time physician, I released a medical statement during the campaign indicating that she is in excellent health,” she said. “I have recently been made aware of allegedly ‘leaked’ medical documents regarding Secretary Clinton with my name on them. These documents are false, were not written by me and are not based on any medical facts. To reiterate what I said in my previous statement, Secretary Clinton is in excellent health and fit to serve as President of the United States.”

The campaign’s communications director criticized Trump for peddling “deranged conspiracy theories,” and it may seem odd that the speculation about Clinton’s health is coming up now, as there’s been no apparent change in her condition. The controversy dates back to 2012, when Clinton fainted due to dehydration caused by a stomach virus and suffered a concussion just before the end of her tenure as secretary of State. During treatment for the concussion, doctors discovered a blood clot in a vein in her head. Clinton rescheduled her testimony on Benghazi before the House and Senate foreign relations committees, and when she did show up, she was wearing glasses used to treat double vision.

As Dr. Bardack noted in a real letter released last year, Clinton recovered completely from both the concussion and the blood clot, but still takes blood-thinning medication as a precaution. Dr. Bardack said that overall, Clinton is “in excellent physical condition and fit to serve as President of the United States.”

The conspiracy theory — #HillaryHealth — was given new life when video surfaced of Clinton shaking her head at reporters on June 10.

On July 23, Gateway Pundit posted the video under the headline “Wow! Did Hillary Clinton Just Suffer a Seizure on Camera?” Lisa Lerer, one of the reporters Clinton was speaking to, wrote a story last week debunking the claim, saying, “Where I saw evasiveness, they see seizures.”

But by then, photos of Clinton being helped up the stairs were being circulated on pro-Trump Twitter accounts. The American Mirror, a right-wing blog, published the image with the headline “SHOCK PHOTO: Multiple staffers help unstable Hillary up stairs,” and the Drudge Report linked to the post. While the American Mirror said the image was published by Getty and Reuters, it failed to note that the photo was six months old and that the caption explains Clinton had merely slipped while walking up the stairs.

Sean Hannity explained that the photos were old, but nevertheless took the opportunity to have medical experts who have never met Clinton speculate about what conditions she may be suffering from in segments on his Fox News show. “I saw the same video you saw, and I’m wondering about a word called ‘aphasia’ where you’re searching for words, you suddenly lose those words, and that can be the sign, again, of some kind of traumatic brain injury or the after effects of a concussion,” said Fox News medical correspondent Marc Siegel.

The reports became fodder for Hannity’s ongoing feud with CNN’s Brian Stelter. On Sunday’s Reliable Sources, Stelter acknowledged that there may be a “grain of truth” to concerns about Clinton’s health. “But Hannity is not interested in the truth about Clinton’s health,” he said. “If he was, he could have interviewed people who were actually there during the episodes that he’s exploiting.” (On Tuesday’s Fox and Friends, Hannity responded by calling Stelter a “little pipsqueak.”)

Hannity also enraged Newsweek’s Kurt Eichenwald by expressing shock at Clinton’s “violent” seizure before the press. He wrote on Monday:

I know this response to Sean Hannity is a little raw, but as someone with epilepsy, I hope my editors will let this slip through: Fuck you, Sean. Your willingness to deceive your viewers—to degrade those of us with epilepsy, to suggest something is a seizure when it looks nothing like one, to leave people dumber about this condition—is unforgivable.

Then, in a column on Tuesday, Eichenwald reminded everyone that Trump is the last person who should question the veracity of someone’s medical report. Dr. Bardack, who has been seeing Clinton since 2001, is the director of internal medicine for Mount Sinai Health System at CareMount Medical. In December, Trump presented a letter from Dr. Jacob Bornstein, who he has been seeing since 1980. It’s unclear why Trump has been seeing a gastroenterologist, who specializes in the digestive tract, for more than three decades.

As Eichenwald notes, the letter is “one of the most ridiculous documents ever to emerge in any political campaign.” The letterhead appears to have been created in Microsoft Word, and the website listed goes to a blank page that contains a computer virus. There are multiple typos and Dr. Bornstein proclaims, “If elected, Mr. Trump, I can state unequivocally, will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.”

Finally, Eichenwald takes a page from Trump, noting that “people say” Trump shows signs of Alzheimer’s, which is the disease that killed his father:

See? I can generate conspiracy theories too. Please understand, I’m not saying Trump has Alzheimer’s. I’m just showing how easy it is to take a few facts and line them up to play the “I’m only asking questions” game. So if conservatives want to keep pushing their “Clinton’s health” conspiracy theory, even though they have a full assessment of her medical status from her doctor, then I’m going to keep demanding that Trump release a letter from a real internist that has real medical tests and results for Alzheimer’s.

If Clinton really wanted to give Trump a taste of his own medicine, she’d drop vague references to Trump’s “sad decline” into all of her speeches. But, of course, the Clinton campaign isn’t completely bananas, so she’s not going to start making reckless accusations about her opponent’s health.