Why Trump wants his health, but not his wealth, scrutinized

Donald Trump can highlight Hillary Clinton's health issues while also drawing attention away from calls for the Republican presidential candidate to release his tax returns and other in-depth financial records. 

Sony Pictures Television/Reuters
Donald Trump releases medical records for the first time to Dr. Mehmet Oz on The Dr. Oz Show detailing the results of his most recent physical examination, in New York on Sept. 14, 2016.

Donald Trump didn’t have a problem handing over a letter about his medical history to talk show host Dr. Oz in a segment that aired Thursday afternoon. In the letter written by Mr. Trump’s colorful gastroenterologist, the Republican presidential nominee is described as being in “excellent physical health,” even though he is overweight and takes a cholesterol drug.

The one-page letter is not Trump’s full medical record. But it’s much more information about his health than he has disclosed about his finances. Trump has refused to release his tax returns, which could shine a light (favorable or not) on his wealth, philanthropy, and financial ties overseas.

Political analysts consider Trump’s release of the letter as smart tactics, a way to raise attention to Hillary Clinton's health as she recovers from what her doctor diagnosed as a “mild” pneumonia, while also drawing attention away from calls for the Republican presidential candidate to release in-depth records about his taxes, fortune, and businesses. Others add the theatrical way he released the letter is part of his playbook to reinforce his billionaire celebrity image, while evading scrutiny about his personal life.  

“It’s an interesting tactic he is able to pull off at this point,” says Diana Owen, a political science professor at Georgetown University’s Communication, Culture, and Technology graduate program in a phone interview. “In a clever way, he has been able to tread that line. ‘I am successful. I do have great wealth. But, at the same time, I’m relatable.' ”

This was also his approach on the daytime “The Dr. Oz Show,” she adds, emphasizing how it played into his “hyperbole status as a celebrity.”

“[But] once you get some more concrete things out there, like his taxes, it might be a little bit harder for him to play this game,” Dr. Owen says.

In the television segment filmed Wednesday, Trump pulls from his suit jacket the letter from his longtime gastroenterologist, Dr. Harold Bornstein, and holds it up to Dr. Mehmet Oz, the popular host whose medical credibility has been questioned by critics.

"I have it right here. Should I do it?” Trump asks the audience. “I don’t care. Should I do it?”

With the audience cheering, Trump hands the letter to Oz who, after reading it, says Trump has “good health for a man of his age.”

The same day Trump was filmed on the show, his son gave a new reason why Trump won’t make his tax returns or other in-depth financial records public. Ever since Trump was asked to release his returns at the first Republican primary debate more than a year ago, he and his campaign have cited an ongoing audit from the Internal Revenue Service as a reason to withhold the paperwork. On Wednesday, the Pittsburgh-Tribune Review published an article in which his son, Donald Trump Jr., said the documents would distract away from the nominee’s political message.

"Because he's got a 12,000-page tax return that would create … financial auditors out of every person in the country asking questions that would detract from [his father's] main message," said Trump Jr.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, says Trump’s tax returns could also detract away from something else: the persona the senior Trump has created for himself.

“Here’s the irony: the central claim of his that he uses to qualify himself for president is that he is a successful businessman … the evidence required to establish that is in a tax record,” she tells the Monitor in a phone interview. She notes that those forms could provide insight into his wealth, philanthropy, and any conflicts of interest or debt he might have overseas.  

But, she says, Trump has been able to evade this “test of honesty.”

“The press is chasing shiny objects – he provides them regularly with shiny objects,” she continues. “He’s just turned the disclosure of his health records from a one-day story to a two-day story.”

Members of Trump’s campaign promised they would soon release the full results of a physical exam he underwent last week. Trump spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders told CNN that Trump intends to release the full exam "by the end of this week."

But Trump’s opponent has also withheld personal information from the public. In fact, Mrs. Clinton is in the spotlight for her hesitancy to disclose she was diagnosed with pneumonia Friday until two days later, when she was seen leaving a 9/11 memorial ceremony. 

“It seems to be Clinton’s guiding impulse to reveal as little information as possible, disclose only those things that are absolutely necessary, and instinctively avoid transparency. Voters are likely to find that more problematic than whatever the health issue is itself,” Matthew Wilson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, told the Monitor’s Peter Grier.

While Clinton and Trump have gained notoriety for their reluctance to reveal certain details about themselves, President Obama and his presidential opponent in 2012, Mitt Romney, also kept the press at arm's length.

“I think we’ve seen a progressive tightening of candidates and campaigns willing to share information in different ways," Nicco Mele, director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School, tells the Monitor.

An exception is Arizona Sen. John McCain when he ran for president in 2008. He invited the press into his doctor’s office to dispel doubt about the then-71-year-old’s health.

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