Donald Trump’s reported disclosure of sensitive intelligence to Russian officials, soon after his abrupt firing of the FBI director, has led reporters and commentators into usually verboten journalistic terrain ― speculating more openly about the president’s mental state, and reporting more deeply on what the people close to him have to say about it.
MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough on Tuesday described Trump as “isolated and out of control and in decline,” noting that even some in the president’s orbit are concerned with his decision-making.
“People on the inside say he keeps getting worse — and mentally, keeps getting worse,” Scarborough said during Tuesday’s episode of “Morning Joe.” “This is, unfortunately, not a learning curve. This is a man in decline.”
The Washington Post reported Saturday on concerns within the administration about Trump’s “state of mind” after he fired FBI Director James Comey amid the bureau’s probe into whether Trump associates colluded with Russia during the 2016 presidential election.
“Across Washington, Trump’s allies have been buzzing about the staff’s competence as well as the president’s state of mind,” the Post’s Phil Rucker wrote. “One GOP figure close to the White House mused privately about whether Trump was ‘in the grip of some kind of paranoid delusion.’”
Even lawmakers are raising the subject, with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) questioning Trump’s fitness for office. Meanwhile, Trump ally Roger Stone declared the president “perfectly sane” this week in a video alongside conspiracy-monger Alex Jones.
Political journalists are often loath to speculate or report on a politician’s mental state, since making diagnoses from afar ― something most journalists are not even qualified to do up close ― is fundamentally at odds with the confirm-before-you-print ethos of reporting.
But Trump’s erratic behavior, his history of lashing out at foes, his gratuitous falsehoods, his tendency to contradict past claims or deny having made them, and his embrace of conspiracy theories have prompted commentators, reporters and politicians alike to push those boundaries in radical ways.
Neither Scarborough nor Rucker is simply playing armchair psychiatrist. Both are relaying the private fears of the president’s allies in Washington, details that shed light on how those close to Trump perceive his mental state as one self-inflicted crisis morphs into the next.
The legendary journalist Carl Bernstein, whose revelations about the Watergate cover-up helped unravel a corrupt presidency, recently argued that such closed-door concerns over Trump’s stability are inherently newsworthy.
“We have many reporters, myself included, who have talked to numerous people, Republicans on Capitol Hill, who in private will tell you they doubt the stability of this president,” Bernstein said Sunday on CNN’s “Reliable Sources.” “And in the last week, it has really been demonstrated. It’s part of the story and it’s very hard to cover.”
Though the topic is often taboo, some journalists have argued that the chaotic character of the Trump administration is a reflection of the president’s own mental state ― and that, therefore, his psychological health is a story the press should cover.
“I know we’re not supposed to bring this up — but it is staring us brutally in the face,” New York magazine’s Andrew Sullivan wrote in a February piece, “The Madness of King Donald.”
Sullivan described Trump as appearing “deranged,” “delusional,” and “bizarrely living in an alternative universe.” In a CNN interview at the time, he argued that “tiptoeing around it or not saying it plainly is a failure of our duty as journalists, as writers and reporters to say and call it as we see it.”
On Tuesday, Sullivan told HuffPost he was pleased to see more media coverage of what he called “an imminent threat to all of us.”
“At some point reality becomes unavoidable,” Sullivan said. “If you met someone in real life who speaks and acts the way Trump does, you would conclude there’s something very very wrong there. The recent interviews are unhinged babble. It seems obvious to me we can’t maintain the pretense that Trump is a sane and balanced adult, however much we’d like to. He’s extremely damaged and therefore an imminent threat to all of us. I’m glad the media is bringing the analysis into line with the facts.”
But even with more reporters and commentators asking questions about Trump’s well-being, newsrooms are still approaching the subject gingerly. Part of this reluctance may be a legacy of the so-called “Goldwater Rule,” which the American Psychiatric Association added to its code of ethics after thousands of psychiatrists participated in a Fact magazine survey about whether, in their view, 1964 Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater was “psychologically unfit” to be commander-in-chief.
Goldwater later successfully sued the magazine for libel.
Psychologists today remain wary of assessing the president’s mental state based on his public statements or late-night tweets. During the campaign, several psychologists contacted by HuffPost declined to diagnose Trump. (In media coverage of this issue, the informal diagnosis that sources usually offer is narcissistic personality disorder ― although Allen Frances, the psychiatrist who wrote the formal criteria for NPD, has argued against that conclusion.)
Still, some experts are speaking out, like Dr. John Gartner, a psychologist who argues that his colleagues have a “duty” to do so.
“If we could construct a psychiatric Frankenstein monster, we could not create a leader more dangerously mentally ill than Donald Trump,” Gartner said during a February appearance on MSNBC. “He’s a paranoid, psychopathic narcissist who is divorced from reality and lashes out impulsively at his imagined enemies.”