Hillary Clinton’s pneumonia-induced fainting spell on Sunday, and her campaign team’s ham-handed response in its aftermath, have greatly complicated the presidential race, which entered its final 60 days over the weekend.
The Clinton campaign blamed the Sunday fainting spell on heat exhaustion, when in fact, she had been diagnosed by her physician the previous Friday with pneumonia. That revelation did not sit well with reporters who had been told Clinton’s weeks-long cough was the result of allergies. The New York Times reported, “The episode thrust questions about Mrs. Clinton’s health and the transparency of her campaign squarely into the last two months of the race, which many polls show has grown tighter.”
But what looks like an opportunity for Republican nominee Donald Trump, coming just two weeks before the first presidential debate, is actually a minefield that he will have to cross with extreme care -- something the billionaire’s campaign appears to be acutely aware of.
Trump, who is usually quick to attack Clinton, was uncharacteristically silent on the question of her fainting episode Sunday. However, he called into the Fox and Friends morning show on Monday and expressed his concern for his opponent.
“I hope she gets well soon,” he said. “I really don’t know what’s going on.” He referred to two extended coughing fits that Clinton suffered last week and speculated that pneumonia had contributed to them as well. “I just hope she gets well and gets back on the trail, and we’ll be seeing her at the debate.”
He knocked down speculation that the Democratic Party is looking for another candidate, saying, “I don’t think they’ll replace her. We have to see what’s wrong. We have to see what’s wrong. Whatever it is, it is. I’m ready.”
Then, the GOP presidential candidate made the unexpected announcement that he will soon be releasing details about his own health. “This last week I took a physical and I’ll be releasing, when the numbers come in, hopefully they’re going to be good, I think they’re going to be good, I feel great. But when the numbers come in I’ll be releasing very, very specific numbers.”
The pre-emptive promise to supply more data about his own health demonstrates that the Trump campaign understands the complexity of the situation that concerns about Clinton’s health creates.
Clinton, who appeared to collapse after abruptly leaving a ceremony marking the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in New York, has been the subject of multiple unfounded rumors about her health -- rumors that Trump has contributed to mainly through insinuation while leaving the actual assertions that Clinton is seriously unwell to his surrogates, like former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Fox News host Sean Hannity.
To be clear, Clinton’s condition does not appear to be severe or permanent. The campaign released the following statement from her personal physician, Dr. Lisa Bardack, on Sunday afternoon:
“Secretary Clinton has been experiencing a cough related to allergies. On Friday, during follow-up evaluation of her prolonged cough, she was diagnosed with pneumonia. She was put on antibiotics and advised to rest and modify her schedule. While at this morning's event, she became overheated and dehydrated. I have just examined her and she is now re-hydrated and recovering nicely.”
However, the campaign announced late Sunday that Clinton had cancelled a campaign swing through California on Monday and Tuesday, presumably to give the candidate time to recuperate.
Now that Clinton is faced with a bona fide health problem, future comments from Trump about her fitness for office will be treated with a degree of seriousness that they haven’t been before -- and may lead to uncomfortable follow-up questions about the GOP nominee himself.
Clinton, who turns 69 this month, would be the second-oldest person ever elected to a first presidential term, behind only Ronald Reagan. At 70, Trump would be the oldest person ever elected to a first presidential term.
Overweight and with a documented passion for unhealthy fast food, Trump is hardly a picture of health. And unlike Clinton, who has already released significant information about her health, Trump has so far issued only an absurdly hyperbolic letter from his personal physician. The doctor later admitted that he had written the four-paragraph letter in a few minutes while Trump’s limo driver waited outside to collect it.
If Trump uses Clinton’s illness to hammer her on the campaign trail -- still a strong possibility given his penchant for going off-script during rallies -- the Clinton campaign will justifiably push back hard by demanding that he releases much more detail about his own well-being. Monday’s announcement that he will release test results from his physical seems to be an effort to head off that move.
In addition to opening Trump to closer examination of his own physical fitness, sustained attacks on Clinton’s health and stamina could further damage Trump’s already dismal standing among female voters. Trump and his surrogates have already angered many women by using rhetoric suggesting that simply being a woman disqualifies Clinton from the presidency.
Harping on Clinton’s battle with a temporary health condition that millions of Americans develop, and recover from, every year could further alienate women who already see Trump as a misogynist.
How Trump and his campaign staff handle the complexity of the Clinton health issue over the next few days will be very instructive as we look toward the final two months of the campaign.