A member of the House Intelligence Committee is going where many of her colleagues have not: reaching out to people in the mental health field to talk about President Donald Trump.
“It’s one thing from my non-professional, non-clinical standpoint [to] believe that someone does not have the capacity to do the job, it’s another thing to talk to experts and [those] who can deal with mental psychosis on a daily basis, so I wanted to hear from them,” Rep. Jackie Speier, a California Democrat, told BuzzFeed News.
While many Democrats have steered clear of speculation about Trump, Speier appears not to be alone in talking to mental health professionals. Half a dozen lawmakers have contacted Bandy Lee, a psychiatry professor at Yale, to talk about the president’s mental state over the past several months, Lee told BuzzFeed News. Although Lee wouldn’t identify the politicians, she said they were Democrats in both the House and Senate.
Speier said she has not spoken with Lee, but that she reached out to two experts to discuss Trump’s mental health, including John Gartner, a psychologist. Gartner is the founder of Duty to Warn, a network of mental health experts across the country making a concerted push into politics and who appear to be circumventing their profession's own rules about diagnosing public figures they have never evaluated themselves. (The traditional concept of a “duty to warn,” ingrained in law in most states, says mental health professionals who have reason to believe a patient may become dangerous or violent toward others must reveal that information, or else risk legal liability.)
Without having directly evaluated him, the group is arguing that the president, as Gartner put it recently, is “deeply and dangerously psychologically disordered."
The roughly two dozen vocal mental health professionals involved in the group have drawn harsh criticism from others in the industry who argue that their statements have little clinical basis and risk casting their field in an unprofessional light and stigmatizing mental illness.
“The solution to Trump is not psychological name-calling, it’s political action,” Allen Frances, former chair of the department of psychiatry at Duke, told BuzzFeed News.
Lee, who was initially affiliated with Duty to Warn, told BuzzFeed News she has distanced herself from Gartner and disagrees with mental health experts diagnosing Trump and advocating for a political outcome.
The American Psychiatric Association, in a statement to BuzzFeed News, refuted “a common misconception” when asked about how Gartner’s group is now using the “duty to warn” concept. A “duty to warn,” the organization said, “does not apply if there is no physician-patient relationship.”
The Duty to Warn therapists have weighed in on several aspects of Trump's personality and behavior from a distance. Based solely on his public behavior, the therapists have focused on what they view as Trump’s narcissistic personality disorder, though some have speculated that he could be a sociopath or have some form of dementia. The White House did not respond to request for comment about the therapists’ conjectures, though Trump’s doctor has previously hailed his health.
No doctor has given a first-hand account providing any sort of reason to think Trump has a psychological disorder. But the kind of speculation once limited to conspiracy theorists is now entering mainstream conversation, with questions about Trump’s mental state raised on cable news and Twitter.
Politicians have publicly joined in. Democratic Rep. Frederica Wilson said last week that the president “is a sick man,” following comments she said he made to the widow of a recently killed US soldier. And on Friday, billionaire Democratic donor and potential California Senate candidate Tom Steyer launched a nationwide TV ad campaign calling for Trump’s impeachment, asserting that he is “a clear and present danger who is mentally unstable.”
Gartner this month formed the 25th Amendment PAC, with the intention of supporting candidates willing to work to remove Trump from office. The constitutional amendment for which the PAC is named codifies the transition of power should the president no longer be able to serve, and provides a mechanism by which congressional leaders and a majority of the president’s cabinet could act in concert to rule the president unfit for office.
The hybrid PAC was only officially filed to the Federal Election Commission on Oct. 1 and there are no financial filings, making it difficult to gauge how successful the group’s fundraising has been, or how much it is spending. The PAC is set up so it can make donations directly to candidates but operate independently with activity like ads.
Gartner told BuzzFeed News the PAC has given $1,000 to Rep. Jamie Raskin, a progressive freshman Democrat from Maryland, who recently introduced legislation to create a commission that would determine whether the president can fulfill the duties of his office, a “body” the Constitution references in section four of the 25th Amendment. The legislation is an extreme longshot in the GOP-controlled Congress.
"We hope to be to the 25th Amendment what the NRA is to the 2nd," Gartner recently said of the PAC.
Psychiatrists over the last 50 years have tended to stay away from commenting on any president’s mental health, citing a self-imposed rule against diagnosing public figures without personally examining them. The so-called Goldwater Rule was established by the APA in the aftermath of the 1964 presidential campaign, when a political publication was roundly criticized for running a story speculating on Republican candidate Barry Goldwater’s mental stability.
Speculation about the president’s mental state is now the stuff of best-selling nonfiction. The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump, which was published earlier this month and features 27 mental health experts, including Gartner, evaluating the president, hit the New York Times best-seller list last week, and organizers are sending copies and signed petitions to Trump cabinet members.
In a prologue to the book, Lee, the book’s head editor, and a coauthor write that they are attempting to assess “dangerousness,” rather than make a formal diagnosis.
Frances said the doctors are making a mistake in their approach. “We shouldn’t be confusing bad behavior with mental illness,” he said. “When we do this, it reduces our ability to respond appropriately to bad behavior, and it stigmatizes the mentally ill.”
Lee told BuzzFeed News that the book’s authors are “not trying to break the Goldwater Rule.”
“We do not diagnose him, we do not make claims that require a full interview,” she said. In her prologue, however, Lee writes that “it doesn’t take a psychiatrist to notice that our president is mentally compromised.”
At least one member of Congress has taken an interest in the book: Speier told BuzzFeed News she is reading it now. And Lee said that every member of Congress is due to receive the book, but she didn’t know who placed the order.
Even as Lee has moved away from Gartner, Duty to Warn features her book prominently on its website and has promoted it at a series of town halls it has held this month, which some members of Congress have attended. (Speier was invited to a town hall that was cancelled due to fires in California; her office said she is not otherwise affiliated with Duty to Warn.)
Gartner presented Raskin with the group’s first “legislator of the year” award earlier this month at a town hall at the Kimpton Glover Park Hotel in one of the most affluent neighborhoods in Washington, DC, before a crowd of roughly 80.
Raskin argued that the 25th Amendment issue is a constitutional one and not strictly related to the Trump presidency or mental health — despite his attendance at and support for an event dedicated almost exclusively to those issues.
“I’ve tried to lift the dialogue up maybe two or three centimeters just to say, OK, everybody’s got their idea about who’s crazy and who’s not, but that’s not the issue here,’” Raskin told BuzzFeed News in the hotel lobby.
“There are clearly people who have mental illnesses who would be perfectly appropriate for president of the United States, like Abraham Lincoln, who almost certainly was depressive,” Raskin said, adding: “I know it’s titillating to a lot of people to talk, to speculate as to particular mental health diagnoses, but the issues are way too serious just to leave it at that.”
Raskin’s legislation to create an “Oversight Commission on Presidential Capacity” in Congress has 31 cosponsors among House Democrats. One of them, Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, wrote a letter praising the bill and questioning Trump’s “state of mind” that was read aloud at New York City’s town hall this month.
There was some skepticism, though, in the New York crowd over how to handle the current moment. A self-described Bernie Sanders delegate from Virginia and retired therapist named Lenny stood up during a Q&A session to challenge the idea of attacking Trump’s psychology.
“This is a cheap shot,” Lenny, who declined to give his last name, later told BuzzFeed News of Duty to Warn’s plan. “This is a masturbatory activity. They are engaging in their own form of narcissism.”
Many Democrats, too, are unconvinced that Trump’s mental health should be a talking point.
"I doubt that that will become the tip of the spear in an electoral campaign,” Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist and former spokesperson for Hillary Clinton, told BuzzFeed News.
Although some Democrats in deep-blue districts, like Raskin and Speier, may have the liberal support to pursue such lines of attack, for others in more vulnerable districts it could be a political liability.
“I don’t think there’s necessarily a unified position on this, even within the progressive wing,” an aide to a liberal senator told BuzzFeed News.
“We sort of knew during the election that this guy was a little bit off, but people still voted for him,” the aide said. “Our focus is on his actions.”
Dr. Bandy Lee claims she requested that all authors abide by the Goldwater Rule for her book, including Gartner.
Lissandra Villa is a politics reporter with BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
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