clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How Hillary Clinton’s health passed from an online conspiracy theory to a mainstream debate

Hillary Clinton has pneumonia, her campaign said Sunday, after the Democratic presidential nominee left a 9/11 memorial event early feeling "overheated."

Clinton’s campaign says she is fine; she's taking a couple of days off for rest, and her doctor has given her an appropriate prescription of antibiotics. But none of this has stopped Clinton health conspirators from claiming they were right all along — theories that Donald Trump himself has supported.

Clinton’s recent diagnosis has been portrayed more seriously than just a case of "walking pneumonia" (a common, mild, and treatable illness) — making mainstream an otherwise baseless claim that she is physically unfit to be president.

And after a series of waffling statements from Clinton’s campaign, it’s on some level understandable why there’s so much interest. At first the campaign said she had allergies, and then it attributed a video of Clinton collapsing while leaving the 9/11 memorial event on Sunday to the heat. It finally admitted Clinton had been diagnosed with pneumonia last Friday near the end of the day. Clinton’s doctor said "she was put on antibiotics, and advised to rest and modify her schedule." She has since canceled some campaign events on the West Coast to rest.

But to Clinton health truthers — who have now pushed baseless claims from online forums to conservative airwaves and now into the mainstream — these changing statements make the whole thing seem like a cover-up.

There’s no doubt that Clinton’s pneumonia diagnosis has given them more to work with. Here’s where that theory came from, what we actually know to be true about Clinton’s health, and how this whole idea has gained traction with mainstream outlets after living on conspiracy websites.

Where the "Hillary health" concern came from

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. Campaign spokesperson Katrina Pierson suggested (without any basis) that Clinton has "dysphasia." On Labor Day, Trump’s campaign manager also winked and nodded to the chatter, embedding in a tweet a video of Clinton coughing.

At least some of these claims seem to be borrowed from conspiracy theorist and right-wing websites alleging Clinton has a brain tumor or some type of life-threatening heart disease. Fox News, Breitbart, and other conservative media outlets have been running with rumors that Clinton’s health might be in question — albeit without any actual substantiation.

Various conservative bloggers and posters on Reddit pointed to a photo 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 in August, Sean Hannity showed a photo of Clinton making a face and suggested that she was 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 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 and PolitiFact. Nevertheless, Hannity dedicated a week of coverage to "investigating" Clinton’s health, bringing on a panel of medical experts —the "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.

This 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 that Clinton’s "facial expressions are odd" and seizure-like:

FIONA 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.

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

FIONA 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.

SEAN 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?

MARC 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—

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

MARC 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, took up these allegations and echoed them at his campaign rallies. "Honestly, I don't think she's all there," he suggested at a New Hampshire rally last month.

What Clinton has said about her health

Here's what we do know: After weeks of coughing and fatigue, Clinton was diagnosed with pneumonia last Friday and has canceled some campaign appearances to rest. Her doctor 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 the candidate's health with lofty adjectives.)

Clinton's doctor reiterated those claims both in response to the pneumonia diagnosis and after fake medical records surfaced on the internet, saying yet again that Clinton is in "excellent" condition to be president.

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 her campaign’s podcast, With Her: "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.

The fact that Clinton’s campaign wasn’t forthright with information about her recent illness gives Trump and his surrogates yet another opportunity to say, "I told you so." Now not only are they suggesting that Clinton is weak, but they also have more grounds to say she was secretive about being sick.

The truthers’ initial claims — that Clinton has had a stroke, and has memory loss and a weak heart — are not comparable to the reality. But when Clinton left the 9/11 memorial event early, her health was already under scrutiny, and wavering around an explanation didn’t do her campaign any favors in the short term.

Trump has a habit of drumming up baseless controversies — and media has struggled to cover him without repeating them

Trump has made a habit of repeating 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 and dangerous aspect of Trump’s presidency. Even if he isn’t endorsing the claim — only pointing out that some people are saying it or retweeting users who spread the rumor — he is airing claims without vetting them, or perhaps in spite of knowing they’re baseless.

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 presidential 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.

Trump’s tendency to do this has presented a challenge to journalists, who have tried to figure out a way to cover one of the major party nominees without giving credence to his underlying falsehoods. CNN has taken to fact-checking Trump in the text at the bottom of the screen.

When I interviewed fact-checking expert Lucas Graves about Trump earlier this year, he said:

I think it is impossible to measure the amount of political lying. You have really remarkable misleading claims throughout history. That feeling that we are in a "post-fact era" just reflects this long-term shift in political discourse that reflects the declining strength in parties, the end of the Cold War political consensus, and the fragmentation of the media environment.

Journalists are no longer gatekeepers in the way they were. Even a decade ago you could meaningfully speak of journalists being able to police to some extent the focus and nature of public discourse, and that is simply not true anymore. Since the 1990s, it has become easier for politicians to speak more directly to the voters, and it is easier for people to tailor their own media diet to their own preferences.

For Trump, this new information age means he feels free to fuel the Hillary health truthers and all their theories.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

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