Trump’s questioning of Biden’s mental acuity is risky | COMMENTARY

In an undated image provided by The Dementia Services Information and Development Center, sample questions from the Montreal Cognitive Assessment, a 10-minute exam meant to highlight possible problems with thinking and memory. As President Donald Trump tries to draw a contrast between his mental faculties and those of former Vice President Joe Biden, some experts criticize his politicization of cognitive screening tests.

President Trump’s interview with Chris Wallace, which aired on “Fox News Sunday,” was remarkable in more ways than there is room to recount here.

But let’s start with what should be the lead story: The President of the United States told Mr. Wallace that the mental competence test he recently took was “very hard,” specifically the last five questions.


Just to be clear, Mr. Trump “passed” the test — a fact he’s boasted about on numerous occasions. “I aced it,” he proudly told Fox’s Sean Hannity earlier this month. The problem is that none of the questions on the standard Montreal Cognitive Assessment (MoCA) test are supposed to be hard if you aren’t suffering from dementia of some kind. Crowing that you “aced” the MoCA is like bragging that you passed a sobriety test while sober.

The last five questions of the 10-minute, nine-task exercise assess things like basic abstract reasoning — e.g., how are a train and a bicycle alike? — and rudimentary memory. The final exercise, presumably hardest according to Mr. Trump, simply asks the patient to provide the date, time and location of the examination.


We should all hope the guy with the nuclear codes can “ace” this test. Some might even say we should have a president who didn’t find it “very hard” to ace it.

Mr. Trump’s bragging about his test results may simply be part of his strategy to cast presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden as “not all there.” But it’s hard to fathom why the Trump campaign thinks this is a shrewd gambit.

In Sunday’s interview, Mr. Wallace asked Mr. Trump point-blank, “Is Joe Biden senile?”

“I don’t want to say that,” Mr. Trump answered. “I’d say he’s not competent to be president.” At first, it seemed the president was opting to take the high road. But he then went on to say, “Joe doesn’t know he’s alive, OK? He doesn’t know he’s alive.” And, later on, “He’s shot, he’s mentally shot.”

Perhaps he’s seen data suggesting attacks on Mr. Biden’s age don’t play well with senior voters, so the task is to claim Biden is mentally handicapped but not as a result of his age? That’s a level of nuance we’d expect of someone who aced a cognitive evaluation, but not what we’d associate with Mr. Trump’s political style.

Regardless, the whole strategy of attacking Mr. Biden as mentally incompetent is risky. Forget that such tactics were once considered beyond the pale. And put aside the entirely reasonable conclusion that Mr. Biden does indeed show his age quite often — and that he’s always had a propensity to say weird things. The Trump campaign is now betting his re-election’s already slim chances on Mr. Biden proving Mr. Trump’s diagnosis is right.

One of the central tasks of campaigning, and politics generally, is managing expectations. Beating expectations in a primary makes you a winner. Falling short has the opposite effect. For instance, Lyndon B. Johnson won the 1968 New Hampshire primary by seven points but fell so far below expectations that he withdrew from the race. Mr. Trump has benefited from early warnings that the U.S. could see millions of deaths from COVID-19, so the current — and rising — death toll of “only” 143,000 beats expectations.

As of now, all Mr. Biden has to do to beat the expectations laid out by Mr. Trump is prove he knows he’s alive — a very light lift. In normal times, presidential campaigns work hard to set expectations for the opponent unreasonably high.


Before Mr. Trump’s first debate with Hillary Clinton in 2016, for example, then-RNC Chairman Reince Priebus said, “The expectations on Hillary are very, very high. She’s been doing this for 30 years. I think people expect her to know every little detail. She has to perform in a way that is of the highest of expectations. I think in the case of Donald Trump, look, he’s the outsider, he’s a person who’s never run before, let alone be in a presidential debate.”

In other words, if Mr. Trump even held his own in the debate, he should be declared the victor.

Given that his lead in the polls continues to widen, there’s no rush for Mr. Biden to call off his front-porch-style campaign. But after months of Mr. Trump’s flailing, erratic and increasingly desperate attacks on Mr. Biden as a near vegetable, all Mr. Biden will have to do is come across as a reassuringly normal, albeit gaffe prone, competent leader. Mr. Biden, despite his flaws, seems up to that.

If the Mr. Wallace interview is any indication, it’s Mr. Trump who struggles to meet that remarkably low bar.

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief of The Dispatch and the host of The Remnant podcast. His Twitter handle is @JonahDispatch.