The Memo: Trump grapples with credibility gap in crisis

The Trump administration’s credibility problems are coming home to roost in the middle of a growing national crisis, now that President TrumpDonald TrumpKinzinger, Gaetz get in back-and-forth on Twitter over Cheney vote READ: Liz Cheney's speech on the House floor Cheney in defiant floor speech: Trump on 'crusade to undermine our democracy' MORE has been hospitalized with COVID-19.

Washington and the wider world were aflame with gossip and conspiracy theories Friday as it became apparent that Trump’s condition was more serious than had first been acknowledged. He left the White House in Marine One, bound for Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, shortly after 6 p.m.

Attempts to steady the ship of state by the White House were not successful. Much of the blame for that lies in an apparent attempt to underplay the health challenges the president faces, and the administration’s longer record of misleading statements on a multitude of topics.


A Washington Post tally in July contended that Trump had made more than 20,000 false or misleading claims during his White House tenure — an average of 12 per day.

“Credibility is the most precious commodity of a president. By routinely lying, the president has put himself in a terrible position where that credibility is needed in a real national crisis,” said Allan Lichtman, a history professor at American University. “This is a national crisis directly affecting the president and, unfortunately, we can’t trust what comes out of the White House.”

The series of events culminating in Trump’s departure for the hospital began Thursday, not with any statement from the White House but via a Bloomberg News story that a key Trump aide, Hope HicksHope HicksUPDATED: McEnany, Fox News talks on pause Trump selects Hicks, Bondi, Grenell and other allies for positions Trump lawyer Jenna Ellis tests positive for coronavirus MORE, had tested positive for COVID-19.

Hicks was among the team who traveled with the president to Tuesday evening’s debate in Cleveland, and to a Wednesday rally in Duluth, Minn.

Details of who knew what, and when, about Hicks’s condition remain cloudy.

After news of her condition emerged, Trump then said that he had been tested and was awaiting results. Confirmation that he, as well as first lady Melania TrumpMelania TrumpJill Biden a key figure in push to pitch White House plans Petition calls for Jill Biden to undo Trump-era changes to White House Rose Garden Fox News's Bret Baier posts vaccination selfie MORE, had been infected came in a tweet shortly before 1 a.m. Friday.


Confusion marked much of the waking hours. White House chief of staff Mark MeadowsMark MeadowsBoehner finally calls it as he sees it Stephen Miller launching group to challenge Democrats' policies through lawsuits A year with the coronavirus: How we got here MORE told reporters around 11 a.m. that Trump was “not only in good spirits but very energetic.” But approximately five hours later, Trump’s physician Sean Conley released a statement describing Trump as “fatigued.” Conley said Trump was being given “an antibody cocktail,” among other medications.

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany characterized the decision to go to Walter Reed as being made “out of an abundance of caution” in a Friday afternoon statement. 

Trump was able to walk to Marine One under his own power shortly afterwards. In a brief video released around the same time on his Twitter account, Trump paid tribute to the “tremendous support” he had received, adding, “I think I am doing very well.”

The sunnier accounts of the president’s health were treated with skepticism, particularly by those whose political loyalties lie elsewhere.

Zeke Emanuel, a prominent bioethicist who served in the Obama administration as a special adviser for health policy, tweeted in relation to the antibody administered to Trump: “You do not give a patient — much less the President of the United States — a drug that is not yet approved by the FDA (to say nothing of one with ‘mild symptoms’)."

“Unsurprisingly, the Trump WH is not being forthright to the American people about the health of their President,” Emanuel added.

Official accounts of Trump's health have had a particularly checkered history.

A visit the president made to Walter Reed last November has never been fully explained. The White House press secretary at the time, Stephanie GrishamStephanie GrishamKayleigh McEnany joins Fox News as co-host of 'Outnumbered' Melania Trump says she was 'disappointed and disheartened' watching Capitol riots Trump resignations gaining steam MORE, said Trump was “taking advantage of a free weekend” in order to “begin portions of his routine annual physical exam.”

This past summer, however, New York Times reporter Michael Schmidt revealed that Vice President Pence had been told “to be on standby to take over the powers of the presidency temporarily,” in the event of Trump having to be anesthetized.

Soon after those details emerged, Trump tweeted a denial that he had suffered “a series of mini-strokes.” Schmidt had not suggested he had done so.

That peculiar episode came on top of a 2018 appraisal when then-White House physician Ronny Jackson praised Trump’s reputedly “incredible genes.” During the 2016 campaign, Trump’s personal doctor, Harold Bornstein, released a letter saying he would be the “healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency” if he won.

Bornstein later said that Trump had dictated the letter.


Some Trump allies argue that the media and the president’s critics make too much of these incidents.

Ron Bonjean, a Republican strategist with ties to the White House, contended that the administration had been “very transparent about the coronavirus diagnosis.”

Bonjean also said Trump “may have a credibility problem with the media but not with his supporters.”

Polls suggest skepticism runs deeper than media circles, however. In an Economist/YouGov survey released Thursday, 32 percent of registered voters viewed Trump as “honest and trustworthy” while 58 percent said he was not.

That kind of distrust spells real trouble now that Trump is confined to hospital, at least for several days, with the presidential election just a month away.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.