Despite insistent requests from the press and the public, Donald Trump has so far refused to release his health records—just like he has refused to share his tax statements.
In December, Harold Bornstein, Trump’s personal physician, wrote in a statement that, if elected, Trump “unequivocally, will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency”—and that seemed like all Americans would get. Trump’s campaign had repeatedly insisted that the candidate’s medical records are of no public interest, while courting speculation over Hillary Clinton’s health after she collapsed during a 9/11 memorial service on Sunday.
However, in what was calculated to be a surprise move, Trump released a summary of his medical records. And he decided to do so on TV. On an episode that aired today (Sep. 15), Trump joined The Dr. Oz Show for a checkup. Finding that his answers suggested enviable health, Oz asked, “if your health is as strong as it seems from your review of systems, why not share your medical records?”
Why not? Feigning marvel at the very idea that this would be an issue—”I have it right here,” he says, in a teaser of the episode, turning to the audience, “should I do it?” he asks, as the audience cheers on—handed a one page summary of his medical records to Dr. Oz, America’s most famous TV doctor, who went on to comment on them. Oz’s diagnosis? Trump appears to be healthy, if possibly obese.
Mehemet Oz is a Turkish-American cardiac surgeon, and is a professor at Columbia University’s department of surgery. He started his television career as a guest on the Oprah Winfrey Show, eventually getting his own daily show starting in 2009.
But while Oz is a qualified physician, not much of his TV work deals in medical science. He often discusses topics that have little or no scientific basis: a 2014 study published in the British Medical Journal analyzed a sample of 40 random episodes of is show, finding that less than half his recommendations were supported by evidence, and 15% of them were outright contradicted by scientific research. In 2015, a group of physicians asked Columbia University to oust Oz, accusing him of quackery—and his lack of rigor and biased recommendations remain controversial.
But, none of these allegations matter. Just like it doesn’t appear to matter that Trump lies, or that he is unprepared for the job he’s seeking. In Oz, Trump has met his dream doc, the perfect character in the casting of his television-powered rise to fame: a TV doctor to review the health records of a reality TV star running for US president.
It’s surreal—and it has worked before.
Any Italian who was old enough to remember events in 2001 wouldn’t find Trump’s ploy unusual: it’s similar to a move that Silvio Berlusconi used to propel himself into political power, after being the leader of the opposition for five years between 1996 and 2001.
First, during the campaign, a biography of the candidate, Una Storia Italiana (An Italian Story, pdf in Italian), which told an hagiographic version of Burlesconi’s life, and contained a synthesis of his electoral platform, was delivered to 16 million Italian households.
Like Trump, Berlusconi has never been a fan of press scrutiny, and confronting him on the points of his programs, beyond his boasting promises (bold tax cuts, unprecedented job creation), hadn’t been easy.
But five days before the elections, Berlusconi appeared on an evening talk show, Porta a Porta (Door to Door) and there, live, he sat at a desk and, while the supplicant host looked over his shoulder, read out loud the five points of his program and signed his Contratto con gli Italiani—a contract with the Italian people. He pledged if he could not fulfill the contract, he would leave the political arena
It was an idea he copied from US Republicans’ 1994 Contract with America, adding the magic of live TV, and the absence of an objective press asking detailed questions. It was a masterstroke. His coalition gained 49.56% of the vote, and Berlusconi went on to lead the longest serving government in the history of the Italian republic.
What happened on the Dr Oz Show is not too different. The timing—right as Clinton recovers from pneumonia and the damage that her secrecy inflicted on her campaign—couldn’t be better. Journalists who have been demanding Trump’s records learned about them at the same time as million of Americans, in a masterful move to turn his lack of accountability into the ultimate signal of transparency.
Trump has nothing to hide, see, he’s showing it all on TV. It’s key that a doctor is there, as it was key for Berlusconi that a journalist be there: they lend a thin but sufficient veneer of legitimacy to the proceedings.
Finally, Trump also sent an even subtler message to America: he doesn’t answer to elites, media or otherwise. Trump talks directly to the people—and tells them what he pleases.