clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Here's how we know the bonkers conspiracy theory about Hillary Clinton's health is catching on

Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

Hillary Clinton broke into a coughing fit at a rally on Labor Day, an episode that might be more or less meaningless. Maybe she needed a sip of water. Or perhaps a throat lozenge. Instead, it fanned this year's conspiracy theory du jour: that Clinton is secretly in very poor health.

The incident — and subsequent coverage of it — is a sign of how successful the pushers of the Hillary Health conspiracy theory have been. They've injected the claim that Hillary is physically unfit to be president into the mainstream, forcing the candidate to respond.

Hillary Health truthers are something of the birthers of 2016 — pushers of a baseless claim online that leapt onto conservative airwaves and then into more mainstream media.

Donald Trump loves to fan it. On Monday night his campaign manager winked and nodded to it, embedding a video of the coughing in a tweet.

Clinton joked that the coughing is because she's "allergic to Trump."

Trump likes to insinuate that Clinton is in poor health — too weak and mentally "unstable" to fight ISIS, too "low-energy" to rally crowds. He once even insisted Clinton takes too many naps. ("No naps for Trump" is something Trump has actually said at a campaign rally.) A campaign spokesperson Katrina Pierson suggested (without any basis) that Clinton has "dysphasia."


The storyline has caught fire on Twitter and on Fox News. Guests on Sean Hannity's show have started calling for Clinton to release her complete medical records.

Of course, there's no evidence of any of this. Here's what we do know: Clinton’s doctor has attested to her well-being at the start of her campaign, releasing a detailed letter about her medical history that ultimately stated that Clinton was "fit to serve" as the president. (This letter was more detailed than the one Trump’s doctor released, which merely described Trump’s health with lofty adjectives.)

Clinton's doctor reiterated those claims recently — in response to fake medical records that surfaced on the internet — saying yet again Clinton is in "excellent" condition to be president. Right now, there's no compelling reason to think otherwise.

But that hasn't stopped Trump or his team from implying that Clinton is in poor health. This is a trademark Trump strategy: He has often lobbed baseless accusations while allowing his supporters to fill in the gaps (much like when he implied that Ted Cruz’s dad was involved in John F. Kennedy’s assassination, or the time he implied President Barack Obama had allegiances outside the United States). This new line of attack against Hillary Clinton is in that vein.

How the conspiracy theory about Clinton’s health got started

Fox News, Breitbart, and other conservative media outlets have run wild with rumors that Clinton’s health might be in question — albeit without any actual substantiation.

Various conservative bloggers and posters on Reddit have pointed to of Clinton being helped up the stairs (as Snopes pointed out, this is a single old photo and there are plenty of pictures of her climbing stairs just fine). They’ve alleged without evidence that Clinton's heart is too weak to manage the strain. On Fox News, Sean Hannity showed a photo of Clinton making a face and suggested that she’s having a seizure.

Conservative sites have likewise fixated on a photo of Clinton that appears to show a square lump under her jacket, with some bloggers suggesting that it's a defibrillator. (In all likelihood, it was a transmitter pack from the wireless microphone she was using, given that there are pictures of Clinton at the same event in which she is no longer holding the microphone and the square lump is no longer there.) Some have also touted fake medical records floating around the internet purporting to show that Clinton suffered a seizure.

These insinuations have been debunked by sites like Snopes.com and Politifact. Nevertheless, Fox News’s Sean Hannity dedicated a week of coverage to "investigating" Clinton’s health, bringing on a panel of medical experts — "Fox News Medical A-Team" — to diagnose Clinton’s possible ailments. None of these experts had ever examined Clinton personally and were going off photos and allegations surfaced on the web.

Hannity’s panel alleged that Clinton might be experiencing residual damage from a fall and concussion in 2012, highlighting a photo that they claimed showed Clinton’s Secret Service agent holding a device used for treating seizures. (As Snopes.com, which has been working overtime to debunk these theories, pointed out, the device was likely just a flashlight.)

Just to understand how absurd this "medical panel" was, here is a back and forth between Hannity, Fox News medical pundit Marc Siegel, and Fiona Gupta, a neurologist from New Jersey, all dissecting a coughing fit Clinton had, in which Hannity tries to convince the panelists Clinton’s "facial expressions are odd" and seizure-like:

GUPTA: You know, it’s just so hard to speculate based on snippets of the clips that, you know, what is going on without having a full examination and workup.

HANNITY: Look at this video right here. Watch her reaction, because I’m not — it almost seems seizure-esque to me.

GUPTA: There are different types of seizures, local seizures that sometimes can cause just one body part, but it would be very rare. I mean, typically seizures will generalize, so I can’t say that’s a seizure.

HANNITY: Aren’t there many seizures like that, Dr. Siegel?

SIEGEL: Well I’m not a neurologist, and I don't think that necessarily looks like a seizure, but I will say this—

HANNITY: Let's rewatch that, what do you think this is?

SIEGEL: I’ll tell you what I think it is, I think that we've seen enough there, especially in someone who has a long medical history and who's approaching 70 years old, for me to be able to say here that both of our candidates need to release their medical information. Sean, the whole idea—

HEANNITY: This looks like violent, out-of-control movements on her part.

SIEGEL: And it could be, and I say could be, related to previous head trauma she had. It's possible. That's why I need to see the records. That's why a neurologist needs to come forward and give a press conference and say this is what is going on with her. She may very well be completely fit, but we want to know.

You can watch more examples here and here.

Trump, for his part, has taken up this allegations and echoed them at his campaign rallies. "Honestly, I don't think she's all there," he suggested at a New Hampshire rally this month.

What Clinton has said about her health

Most campaigns tend to release letters from physicians who have examined the candidates. Clinton’s doctor released a letter in July 2015 detailing Clinton’s medical record, family history, medications, and recent examinations. The letter found that while Clinton has hypothyroidism and seasonal allergies, she is in "excellent physical condition and fit to serve as president of the United States."

Indeed, Clinton’s doctor’s note was substantially more extensive and detailed than the letter Trump’s doctor released, which merely said that Trump had lost weight recently and bragged that he would be "the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency."

That’s not to say that Clinton has never had health issues. According to the doctor’s note, she suffered a concussion after fainting in 2012 due to dehydration from a stomach virus. And she has taken anticoagulation therapy to dissolve a clot found in 2012. (Follow-up examination, the doctor notes, found that Clinton "tested negative for all clotting disorders," though she continued to take anticoagulants as a precaution.) But the doctor’s note didn’t give any reason for concern.

Clinton, meanwhile, has not shied away from commenting on the difficulties of the campaign. After the convention and following week of campaign rallies, she explained her exhaustion on the campaign podcast: "By the end of those two weeks ... it was, oh, my gosh, I don’t know that I can get up let alone, what I will do if I am vertical – I think that happens to everybody," she said.

"I try to eat right – not always succeeding but I try, try to get enough sleep, try to exercise," Clinton said on the podcast. "I am not going to pretend that I like it, because I don’t, but between yoga and walking and getting on the treadmill and weights, I try to keep up, just try to get the energy reservoir filled up again."

Clinton made light of the health allegations on Jimmy Kimmel's late night show on August 23, calling it just another of Trump's "wacky" campaign strategies.

"Take my pulse while I'm talking to you," Clinton joked:

Trump has a habit of drumming up baseless controversies

Baseless insinuations about Clinton’s health are par for the course for Trump, who has made a habit of making up rumors about his political opponents.

This past year, he has repeatedly insinuated that Ted Cruz’s father was involved in JFK’s assassination. After the shooting in Orlando, he implied that Obama had deeper ties to terrorists than the American public is aware of. Seemingly apropos of nothing, Trump reignited conspiracies that there was something "fishy" about the suicide of Bill Clinton’s close friend and former White House counsel Vince Foster. And most recently he spread a fake controversy that Clinton’s emails had something to do with the Iranian government’s execution of a nuclear scientist.

All of this is a key part of Trump’s campaign strategy: If it hurts his opponents, he runs with it, and deals with the consequences later.

Trump does not always get called out on this tendency. But Vox’s Ezra Klein has argued that he should — because it suggests that Trump is too gullible to be president candidate:

His tendency to solicit, repeat, and retweet self-serving falsehoods served up by sycophants and hangers-on should be taken seriously. Among the most important tasks the president has is knowing what to believe, whom to listen to, which facts to trust, and which theories to explore. Trump's terrible judgment in this regard is one of the many reasons he's not qualified for the office.


Donald Trump hates lies, but can't tell the truth

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.