March 26, 2021
For former President Donald Trump’s GOP allies, President Joe Biden’s recent stumble on the Air Force One stairs was a sign of bigger problems. But Republican senators who’ve met with Biden say the 78-year-old president is just fine, with one describing him as “sharp as a tack.”
Biden’s fitness for office, a longtime fixation among conservatives, is dominating conversations on the right as Trump openly sows doubts about the health of the man who defeated him. One Republican senator recently texted an acquaintance his private suspicions that Biden, the oldest president in history, is mentally unwell. In on-the-record interviews, however, seven GOP senators who’ve met with Biden lately described him as cogent and well-versed on the issues they discussed. And none echoed the warnings many pro-Trump Republicans have issued about Biden amid the chatter about his stair-stepping acumen.
“In the two meetings I was in with the president, he was as sharp as a tack,” Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) said in an interview.
Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.), who joined Capito at a February meeting with Biden on Covid relief, said he didn’t see anything amiss: “I visited with him in the Oval Office, and he seemed well-prepared and well-briefed for the meeting.”
During the 2020 campaign, Biden — who stuttered as a child — weathered Trump’s attacks on his faculties, dismissing clips of his verbal tics and minor memory lapses. Trump’s allies are still trying to paint Biden as deteriorating in office, even after he stayed largely on-message fielding questions at a 62-minute Thursday press conference. While the more centrist GOP senators interviewed this week wouldn’t criticize colleagues for floating unsubstantiated theories about Biden’s health, their varying reactions show an enduring gulf between those Republicans who publicly emulate Trump’s go-for-the-jugular politics — and those who shy away from it.
Of course, some pro-Trump GOP senators are willing to cross that line.
“It’s sad to see people age,” said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), a Trump ally who has been one of Biden’s most strident critics. Johnson added that he shares concerns about the president’s fitness: “I think many Americans do, from what we’ve seen. It is sad.”
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) appears to share similar concerns, though he has yet to share them publicly. He texted an acquaintance earlier this month to say that Biden reminds him of someone he knows who began developing Alzheimer’s disease.
“I of course have no medical training and can’t diagnose a condition — especially over someone I don’t personally interact daily — but from a distance I can see that he’s not doing well,” Lee wrote, according to private communications reviewed by POLITICO. “Sad. And disturbing.”
Lee’s office declined to comment further on those messages.
Since taking office, Biden has fostered relationships with a small group of moderate GOP senators, wooing some Republican votes for his various legislative priorities. And while those Republicans were frustrated that Biden pushed through a $1.9 trillion Covid aid bill without their votes, they apparently found him up to speed during their personal interactions.
Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), a medical doctor, said Biden “listened very attentively and appropriately” during their recent in-person meeting. Asked whether he disagrees with the assessment of some fellow Republicans airing more worries, Cassidy replied: “I just comment on what I see.”
Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), who also joined February’s Oval Office meeting with Biden, echoed that sentiment. And a third Republican senator at that two-hour sitdown went even further.
“My experience in that one setting was that the president performed well,” said Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.). During his conversation with the 10 Republican senators who visited the White House, Moran recalled, the president didn’t rely on his staff or the vice president for information.
Several pro-Trump senators steered clear of Biden’s health in interviews, focusing their criticism on his agenda.
“What I’m concerned about in the Biden administration is the left-wing policies that are being put in place in the first couple of months in office,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said.
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) described Biden’s delay in holding a press conference, prior to Thursday, as “odd” and “weird.” Pressed on whether that relates to his health, the potential 2024 presidential contender demurred: “I don’t know the answer to that, and frankly I don’t think it really matters.”
One of the 10 Republican senators who sought February’s Oval Office meeting with Biden also refused to weigh in on the president’s performance.
“I’m not going there,” Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) said. “I’ll focus on the actual stuff he’s doing.”
After Thursday’s presidential press conference, Trump allies continued to question Biden’s acumen. “A President with cognitive decline is a national security risk,” tweeted Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.). “It’s time to stop dancing around that.”
Biden “struggled to make it through,” tweeted Rep. Ronny Jackson (R-Texas), who previously served as White House physician to Trump and former President Barack Obama.
A Pentagon inspector general report recently concluded that Jackson abused alcohol and behaved inappropriately toward women while on the job at the White House.
The White House declined to comment on Republican claims about Biden’s health. But in the past, Biden campaign officials have dismissed such speculation as irresponsible nonsense.
Notably, ABC News reported last fall that the Department of Homeland Security had issued a bulletin warning Russia was spreading disinformation about Biden’s mental health in an attempt to influence the 2020 election.
Trump fielded similar questions about his health throughout his time in office, including after an episode toward the end of his term where he wobbled unsteadily down a ramp after giving a speech at U.S. Military Academy at West Point in New York. Trump’s evident shakiness on the ramp, shortly after he turned 74, spawned trending Twitter hashtags like “TrumpIsUnwell” and “TRUMPstroke.”
Biden also brought up Trump’s health to reporters after the ramp incident. “Look at how he steps and look at how I step. Watch how I run up ramps and he stumbles down ramps. Come on,” the then-Democratic candidate said.
In a Monday interview with Newsmax, Trump hit back, calling Biden’s tumble “terrible.” Trump complained that the “lamestream media” largely didn’t address his successor’s stairs stumble and compared the media coverage he received after the West Point moment to the present attention Biden is getting.
“[T]he last thing I wanted was to take a tumble, like Biden did,” Trump said.
Christopher Cadelago contributed reporting.