'Not Rooted in Science': Media Won't Judge Biden's Brain After Throwing the DSM-5 at Trump

(Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images, Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)
February 12, 2024

The initial news coverage of last week's special counsel report, which described President Joe Biden as an "elderly man with a poor memory," was harsh.

"Special counsel report paints scathing picture of Biden's memory," blared the Washington Post. "Biden mixes up presidents of Mexico and Egypt in speech defending memory," added the Guardian. The Atlantic's Helen Lewis suggested Biden should step aside and let Democrats nominate for president someone who is "able to finish a sentence."

But following a reprimand from the White House, the media appeared chastened. Pundits disparaged the special counsel, Robert Hur, accused Biden's critics of ageism, and insisted the president's elderliness is "his superpower." At the same time, experts emerged to explain that it's impossible to assess Biden's mental acuity from afar and, anyway, everyone forgets things and Biden's critics are ageist.

It was a sharp change from the standard of a few years ago, when the media helped to diagnose then-president Donald Trump with all kinds of disqualifying brain problems. Journalists matched Trump to various entries in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, neurological disorders, and whatever Hitler had.

"Questions about President Biden's memory touch off debate about age, mental fitness," CBS News, Feb. 9:

Massachusetts General Hospital neurologist Bruce Price said forgetting names is not necessarily a sign of a serious cognitive problem. "It's probably a sign of being in overwhelm," Price said. "Don't we all have, if you will, an acquired attention deficit disorder, 10 balls in the air at any given moment."

He co-founded a research group called the Center for Law, Brain, and Behavior. "There are some benefits to normal aging," he said. "A subset of people will have wisdom based upon their experience."

"What is a typical degree of cognitive ability for a person in their 80s?" CNN, Feb. 9:

[Western University Communications Professor Angela] Roberts described the report's claims as "very troubling" and not rooted in science.

"It's not the comments I have concern with; it's the attributing it to age and what that does from an ageist perspective in society," she said.

She also said that trouble with word recall is not automatically indicative of memory problems.

"Memory Loss Requires Careful Diagnosis, Scientists Say," New York Times, Feb. 9:

But while [Hur's] report disparaged Mr. Biden's mental health, medical experts on Friday noted that its judgments were not based on science and that its methods bore no resemblance to those that doctors use to assess possible cognitive impairment.

"How your memory really works, and how it changes as you age," Washington Post, Feb. 10:

Experts agree. Memory, no matter what your age, is fallible and malleable. Our brain processes incalculable amounts of information at a given time, and there's simply not room for all of it to be stored. And surprisingly, the act of forgetting is an important aspect of memory.

"Verbal gaffe or sign of trouble? Mixing up names like Biden and Trump have done is pretty common," Associated Press, Feb. 10:

Any parent who's ever called one of their children by the other's name—or even the family pet's name—likely could empathize when President Joe Biden mixed up the names of French leaders Macron and Mitterrand. …

Health experts caution that neither verbal gaffes nor a lawyer's opinions can reveal whether someone is having cognitive trouble. That takes medical testing.

"As Biden's memory issues draw attention, neurologists weigh in," NBC News, Feb. 10:

Forgetting the names of acquaintances or having difficulty remembering dates from the past doesn't affect decision-making or judgment, brain experts say.

FLASHBACK: Even before Trump was elected, journalists started lining up experts to explain how his brain was dangerously broken.

"Donald Trump: Sociopath?" Atlantic, July 20, 2016:

The stakes are high. Tony Schwartz, the writer of the best-selling [Trump autobiography The Art of the Deal], said that he "genuinely believe[s] that if Trump wins and gets the nuclear codes, there is an excellent possibility it will lead to the end of civilization."

"Is Trump mentally ill? Or is America? Psychiatrists weigh in," Washington Post, Sept. 22, 2017:

Now, some psychiatrists and other mental-health professionals are shedding long-held norms to argue that Trump's condition presents risks to the nation and the world. "The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump" features more than two dozen essays breaking down the president's perceived traits, which the contributors find consistent with symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder, sociopathy and other maladies.

"How Anti-Trump Psychiatrists Are Mobilizing Behind the Twenty-Fifth Amendment," New Yorker, Oct. 16, 2017:

The removal of Trump using the Twenty-fifth Amendment is the aim of a newly launched social movement composed of mental-health professionals. The group, called Duty To Warn, claims that Donald Trump "suffers from an incurable malignant narcissism that makes him incapable of carrying out his presidential duties and poses a danger to the nation." On Saturday, the organization held coordinated kickoff events in fourteen cities, where mental-health experts spoke out about Trump's dangerousness and, in several, took to the streets in organized funereal marches, complete with drum corps.

"Psychiatrists warn Trump becoming more mentally unstable, putting US, world at 'extreme risk,'" CNBC, Dec. 1, 2017:

A Yale University psychiatrist is warning that President Donald Trump has become increasingly mentally unstable in recent days, imperiling the United States and the rest of the [world].

"Is Something Neurologically Wrong With Donald Trump?" Atlantic, Jan. 3, 2018:

President Donald Trump's decision to brag in a tweet about the size of his "nuclear button" compared with North Korea's was widely condemned as bellicose and reckless. The comments are also part of a larger pattern of odd and often alarming behavior for a person in the nation's highest office.

"Doctors want President Trump's head examined," CNN, Jan. 16, 2018:

President Donald Trump is "in excellent health," White House physician, Dr. Ronny Jackson, said following his physical Friday. But it's not clear whether any mental health tests were conducted, despite urging from mental health professionals.

"Opinion: Trump Is Mentally Unfit, No Exam Needed," New York Times, Oct. 11, 2019:

But, as mental health professionals, we have felt a duty to address a public health crisis: a mentally unfit person in charge of the world's most powerful military and its nuclear weapons. We have found ample evidence of his instability and grandiosity in the president's own words and public statements, most recently confirmed in his referring to "my great and unmatched wisdom," coupled with yet another threat to "totally destroy and obliterate" a foreign country.

Mr. Trump's now familiar affinity for violence is manifest in his verbal threats and his incitement to violence at his rallies.

"350 health professionals sign letter to Congress claiming Trump's mental health is deteriorating dangerously amid impeachment proceedings," Business Insider, Dec. 5, 2019:

[Yale psychiatrist Bandy Lee] told the Independent that Trump appeared to be "doubling and tripling down on his delusions," based on his "ramping up his conspiracy theories" and "showing a great deal of cruelty and vindictiveness" in his "accelerated, repetitive tweets."

"I believe that they fit the pattern of delusions rather than just plain lies," she said. …

She said "whenever the Goldwater rule [which states that psychiatrists should not make public statements about the mental health of public figures unless they have personally examined the figures] is mentioned, we should also refer to the Declaration of Geneva, established by the World Medical Association 25 years earlier, which mandates physicians to speak up if there are humanitarian reasons to do so. This Declaration was created in response to the experience of Nazism."

FLASH-FORWARD: Notably, even as the media defended Biden's mental acuity, the new consensus appeared to be that Trump looks sharp by comparison.

"Biden and Trump are both old. So why are voters keying in on only one of them?" NBC News, Sept. 15:

Trump is no spring chicken either. In fact, he's just three years younger than Biden. But he's not facing nearly the same scrutiny for his age.

"Trump just comes off as a much younger person," said Renee King, a two-time Trump voter in Mondamin, Iowa, who is undecided for 2024. (King declined to give her age.) "Just the way he speaks, the way he walks. Just everything he does."

"Biden's Age Is Now Unavoidable," Atlantic, Feb. 8:

Biden's likely Republican opponent, Donald Trump, a mere debutant at 77, is possessed with a bronzed, demonic energy that makes him seem vigorously alive, even when his words make no sense. Joe Biden looks like he is turning into a statue of Joe Biden.

"Why the Age Issue Is Hurting Biden So Much More Than Trump," New York Times, Feb. 10:

Mr. Trump, by contrast, does not appear to be suffering the effects of time in such visible ways. Mr. Trump often dyes his hair and appears unnaturally tan. He is heavyset and tall, and he uses his physicality to project strength in front of crowds. When he takes the stage at rallies, he basks in adulation for several minutes, dancing to an opening song, and then holds forth in speeches replete with macho rhetoric and bombast that typically last well over an hour, a display of stamina.