AS IF the flailing campaign of Donald Trump didn’t have enough problems, for two weeks now there’s been a sub rosa speculation that The Donald, presumed stalwart of Republican values, could be using cocaine.
The twitterverse and social media generally have been rife with suspicion, but the notion has gotten very little traction in mainstream media, curious given the usual investigative reflexes of journalists on the presidential campaign trail.
With other stories in an election year in which the improbable has been the everyday, the fact that there's apparently no “there” there hasn't stopped reporters from looking for “there” anyway.
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We can thank Howard Dean for setting this off, of course. When the doctor and former Vermont governor observed Trump’s constant sniffling during the first debate, Sept. 26 at Hofstra University, Dean tweeted something, certainly not a diagnosis but a speculation:
“Notice Trump sniffing all the time. Coke user?”
He saw what we saw the night of the first debate:
On MSNBC on Sept. 27, defending himself, Dean said Trump exhibited “grandiosity,” “delusions” and “trouble with pressured speech” and “couldn't keep himself together.”
“You can't make a diagnosis over the television; I would never do that,” he said, but “I just was struck by the sniffing and then by his behavior, which all sort of came together, these four symptoms. ... [D]o I think he has a cocaine habit? I think it's unlikely that you could mount a presidential campaign at 70 years old with a cocaine habit, but it’s striking.”
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IS HOWARD Dean right? There's been ritual full-throated denial from the campaign. In a statement, Team Trump said Dean went “straight to the gutter and was nothing more than a sad distraction in a desperate attempt to stay relevant.” What’s since taken shape in mainstream media, especially in the wake of more Trump sniffling during the second debate, is a situation where some prominent mainstream outlets of journalism have sidelined or shut down debate on the issue — unusual for a disinterested press corps in a raucous election year.
Forbes decided to approach Trump’s sniffling head-on; the magazine web site published a piece on Sunday, a partly humorous report by contributor Bruce Y. Lee that offered a generously panoramic explanation for The Donald’s nasal woes:
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Trump’s doctor, Dr. Harold N. Bornstein of Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan, released a medical report last December, a report whose brevity and general praise without specifics raised eyebrows in the media for months.
In the report, Bornstein said Trump’s blood pressure was “astonishingly excellent,” but we can’t know right now if that’s with or without blood pressure meds. Trump has no known history of depression, so that’s probably out.
After 30 or 40 years in the public eye, in a world of serious money amid people with serious money, it’d seem that if he had an allergy to perfume or cologne, any of the Shalimars and Chanels No. 5 of his cloistered, privileged world, we’d have seen and heard sniffling before now. Similarly, if he’d been in an accident causing serious head trauma, it’s not likely he, one of the more visible people of our culture, could keep that (or recovering from that) a secret.
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ARE THERE any other possible causes? Of course. At Mediaite, readers of Carrie Fisher’s frank statement that Trump “ABSOLUTELY” exhibited the behavior of a cokehead, pushed back, fairly commenting that the cause of Trump’s sniffles might just be the recirculated air in his airplane cabin, or even the natural sound of his breathing with the mic close to his mouth.
But ... could coke be off the table as a possible cause? The 70’s and the 80’s were eras in which cocaine was rife among the moneyed class in America, as well as a fixture in the bacchanal popular culture to which Trump affixed himself. In one of the more popular novels of the 80’s , Jay McInerney’s “Bright Lights, Big City,” the protagonist avails himself of “Bolivian marching powder” as he navigates the canyons and clubs of Manhattan.
reported in June of this year. “His prowling gear at the time included a burgundy suit with matching patent-leather shoes,” Timothy L. O’Brien wrote in his 2005 book “TrumpNation: The Art of Being the Donald.”
Correlation doesn’t mean causation. Still, is it a worthwhile line of journalistic inquiry to pursue?
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Dean is a former Democratic governor! He was, at one point, a leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination! He was the chairman of the Democratic National Committee! And, perhaps most important, he was once a doctor!
Dean alleged — not once, but twice — that the Republican presidential nominee uses cocaine. That's a pretty big allegation, no? Particularly when you offer absolutely no evidence beyond the fact that Trump sniffed a bunch during the debate. That's sort of like insisting a candidate is dying because they have a coughing spell, right?
The pushback against that line of argument is, "Well, everyone was thinking it!" Um, okay. Number one, Democrats on Twitter don't count as "everyone." Number two, thinking something and saying it publicly — especially when you are a former head of the Democratic Party and a physician — are two very different things. ...
Try a thought experiment with me. Imagine if Haley Barbour, a former Mississippi governor and chairman of the Republican National Committee, said that Clinton was slurring words during the debate and suggested she might have a problem with alcohol. Do you think that story (a) would get covered and (b) should get covered? The answer to both of those questions, is, obviously, yes.
No matter what you think of Trump, it's hard — if you are taking a neutral look at things — to conclude that Dean shouldn't have to offer a fuller explanation for his allegations and, if he can't, apologize to Trump. And, by that same standard, someone should ask Clinton if she saw Dean's comments and whether she agrees or disagrees with what he said about her opponent.
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AT THE Washington Post web site, freedomfromreligion gave Dean the benefit of the doubt in a provocatively specific comment: “Dr. Dean may be right with that diagnosis! He's a doctor, what's he going by? Sniffy nose? Everyone is focused on that. And coke will [a]ffect your nose — running or congestion. But it has another effect very likely to go unnoticed by folks paying attention to the blathering.
“It makes the pupils bigger (mydriasis).
“Go look at the debate video again, full screen, and check it out. :D
“His pupils are noticeably larger than Hillary's. He squints a lot and when he opens up his eyes, the pupil is quite large, and then constricts but only back to the way it was when the eyes were open.
“Those studio lights are pretty bright, his pupils are open pretty wide. If they won't close down more, he's got to squint to reduce the brightness.”
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“Let me see if I get your point: you are ridiculing the idea of actually doing reporting around Dean's allegation that Trump did cocaine (which may or may not be wacky, how do you know if you don't investigate?)... and to prove how even-handed you are, you postulate that if a Republican alleged Hillary had an alcohol problem, you'd investigate the heck out of that sucker? That's not even FALSE equivalence! That's an outright confession that you'll investigate Hillary for any reason at all, passing by any reason to look at Trump!”
Cubby2 concurs: “Why should the possibility of cocaine use/abuse be discounted just because the question was raised by a physician who happens to be a Democrat? If Hillary Clinton nods her head, we are told that she had a seizure. Donald Trump appears to be coked up and we just let that pass?”
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FOR NOW, let’s give Trump that proverbial benefit of the doubt. His train wreck of a campaign has enough problems and challenges without the Sisyphean eleventh-hour prospect of having to fend off serious suspicions that the Republican nominee is using coke. You'd hope no one could be that suicidal, physically and politically, at the same time.
One obvious way to short-circuit this issue is for the Trump campaign to make a statement explaining Trump’s nasal issues. In detail. And short of that statement (and you know the campaign won’t even think of volunteering one [it would feel too much like the pressure Trump brought to bear on President Obama with the birther controversy]), the only other way to put the issue to rest is for journalists who step up and do what they’re supposed to do: ask uncomfortable questions, despite the official explanation.
Like: “Mr. Trump, in the two previous debates, you’ve been observed doing quite a bit of sniffling. Can you explain why?”
Then: “For the record, are you now using or have you used cocaine during this presidential campaign?”
Few questions could be simpler for The Donald to answer. Clearing the air, once and for all:
“ ‘No,’ the candidate sniffed dismissively.’”
Image credits: Trump top: From first debate pool camera feed. Trump with Steve Rubell (owner of Studio 54 from 1977-1980), date and location unknown: SCAD Museum of Modern Art. "Bright Lights, Big City" cover: © 1984 Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Washington Post logo: © 2016 The Washington Post Company. Mydriasis example image: Wikipedia.