David Talbot on Donald Trump: "He's a walking time bomb"

The stroke survivor and author told us what he sees when he watches Trump

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published September 11, 2020 6:00PM (EDT)

Donald Trump, about to go off (Illustration by Salon/Ilana Lidagoster)
Donald Trump, about to go off (Illustration by Salon/Ilana Lidagoster)

In Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael S. Schmidt's new book, "Donald Trump v. the United States: Inside the Struggle to Stop a President," Schmidt reports that when Trump was taken to Walter Reed Medical Center in November of 2019, Vice President Mike Pence was "on standby to take over the powers of the presidency temporarily if Trump had to undergo a procedure that would have required him to be anesthetized."

When that information appeared in the New York Times in late August, Trump responded with his usual degree of restraint and decorum, taking to Twitter to announce that "they are trying to say that your favorite President, me, went to Walter Reed Medical Center, having suffered a series of mini-strokes." The topic certainly does seem to be on Trump's mind, given that the Times report did not in fact mention stroke.

Curious to understand what might be going on here, I reached out to someone who definitely knows about strokes and has been candid about the experience — Salon's own founder, author David Talbot.

In 2017, Talbot suffered a major stroke, a physically and emotionally life-changing  experience he chronicled in his latest book, "Between Heaven and Hell: The Story of My Stroke." I spoke to Talbot via phone earlier this week about what it feels like to have a stroke, the impact it had on him and what he sees when he looks at Trump. As usual, this interview has been condensed and edited for print.

This new book coming out sparked rumors that Trump had a quote-unquote "mini stroke." "Stroke" is a controversial term. You describe in your book what it really feels like to have a stroke, and how that experience also runs on a spectrum. I feel like the word "stroke" is also so deeply misunderstood.

It's a loaded word, like [it was] for "cancer" years ago. It was such a toxic and dangerous term for people to even use. People avoided even using "the C-word" because they felt condemned by it in some way. I think it's the same for any brain trauma.

I think about the way that you describe reacting when you were having it, like, "Nope, this isn't happening." And then there's all of the taboo around it. You see in someone like Trump — of course he would never admit if he had had some sort of neurological event.

For anybody who has any brain trauma, it's very alarming. First and foremost, you're afraid that you're going to die or be severely impaired in some way. That happened to my mother. She did have a series of aneurysms and strokes. Each one debilitated her, and it finally killed her. That's in my family history, and I know others who've been killed or severely disabled by strokes or head injuries of some sort. So your first fear is denial: "This can't be happening to me." I think that's what I felt. And then I went into a strange kind of shock. I think it was where I was in denial and I wanted to keep it private. It was a rare, strange, kind of drug-like experience. It was kind of my own thing, and I wanted to protect it.

I think for anybody who's in a public position — It happened to me at Salon, I wrote about having this health incident where I passed out at my desk. It was obviously related to work stress. Even a guy who's as sick and as callous as he [Trump] is, notoriously, has to feel enormous stress in this job.

He knows he's in over his head. He didn't do the job. Obama said it right at the Democratic Convention. It must be a terrible feeling on some level for [Trump] to realize he's incapable of doing this job. He's filled with so much empty boasting and pride that he can't admit any weakness. For a man like that, it must be a double blow. He realizes he's not up to the job. He's now age 74, he's obese. He's a prime candidate for a stroke, if he hasn't them already. And I kind of suspect he has, based on his coherence. I think then he's due to have one. He certainly would have one in a second term — a heart attack or a stroke, keel over in some way.

His kid brother Robert just died. That's got to weigh heavily on him too. That has got to get through even to his thick skull that he is mortal, that he is in danger of some kind of collapse. I saw him deliver his speeches at the RNC, this creepy "Triumph of the Will" tableau in front of the White House. By the end, it was over 70 minutes, he was hanging on to lectern for dear life to support him. I thought he was going to keel over delivering his speech. He was out of breath, he wheezes through his nose.

Clearly the guy is not healthy. Yet the White House doctor is colluding with the coverup, keeps saying nothing is wrong. But I suspect it was a very frightening medical emergency [for him] in November. He brought up the mini-strokes, Michael Schmidt didn't do it in his book. He did. He felt he had to deny it. He's been hearing the rumors, or he knows he suffered some mini-strokes.

It seems to me it's cognitive. I'm not an expert, I'm not a medical expert. I've had a stroke and I know therapists who deal with stroke survivors. It seems to me, based on my limited lay experience, that he does have some cognitive disability. He rambles in his interviews. He's not coherent often. He's not linear. Even if you compare his speech today to when he was in his prime, The Donald in New York, he seems to me a lot more diminished in his speaking ability.

I know even from having migraines that when something affects your brain, it affects your mind. When I get a migraine, I become anxious and distressed. Something is storming around in my brain. That is very scary.

It is, because you're not in control. I felt like a wounded animal when I was having my stroke. I felt very interior, I felt like I was withdrawing into very private dark place within my universe. It was a place I knew I'd never been before. It was like being on a strange planet. I had a major stroke, but even if you have a minor version where you suddenly lose it or can't pick up on the conversation or you miss a beat somehow, that must be very frightening.

The man I see is in distress. He's covering it up with even more bluster than usual. If you compare him to earlier periods of his career, he's clearly lost a step or two. He's flailing around, charging with Biden with being mentally incompetent. Biden's no spring chicken either.

We do have this strange coincidence where the two leading presidential candidates are elderly men. People do wonder about their durability in the White House office, which is enormously stressful. You've seen all the before and after of Obama as he goes into office and as he leaves office. Obama is significantly grayer and older looking. Clinton, he had his own heart problems after he left office. The job wears on you.

I know just from my own experience running a publication during the dot-com era, the kind of stress you can have and how it can wear you down, and add to whatever issues you have. I would say that he would not survive a second term based on my layperson's observations. I think he's under enormous stress and he's a walking time bomb. And his weight — I think he's put on weight.

"Stroke" is such a decisive word. You think of a stroke as a thing, a single event. Yet it is not. A stroke can be something that takes place over time. You were talking to people, you drove yourself home. That is something that I think maybe people don't understand about the process of it that makes it a unique medical event.

In my case, it was a 48 hour event. The trauma lasted 48 hours; there were obviously lingering effects. It was called a stuttering stroke and they had to monitor me to see how much damage it would do in that 48 hour period. Frankly, they do it in a cold, clinical way where they evaluate whether you're worth their effort to put you into rehabilitation afterward. Some people, sadly, they just have to warehouse because they're beyond help, at least current medical ability.

Thank God the stroke left me intellectually intact enough that I was capable of being put in a rehab program, but I was a mess. It took me months, probably over a year, to get back to where I am now. Even now I have some speech issues. My vision has been affected and I can't drive. I've had to learn to accommodate my disabilities. That's part of being a mature adult, realizing I can't be the same and I never will be, and learning to live with that diminished capacity. It's liberating in some ways. It has been for me. I just appreciate much more strongly certain things about my life, my family, my friends. I appreciate the work I can continue to do and how it's left me mentally intact enough to still have a fulfilling life.

But I have to wake up every day and adjust my expectations. Every day I have to go, "Oh, I can't see as clearly any more. Oh, I'm kind of permanently dizzy. I can't walk as confidently as I used to and I certainly can't get behind the wheel without endangering myself and others." It's limited my life, but as I say in my book, it's also liberated me in lots of ways.

I think Donald Trump is not, clearly, in that place. I think clearly he's a man who's defying his rapidly advancing physical problems. He's still heavily in denial. He's married all these younger women. He kept firing them and hiring new ones. He's a man who a captive of his own ego, and that's a candidate for tragedy.

I know from my own experience, illness just changes your whole world. It changes your priorities. It makes the time that you have in this world very real. You can either find the beauty in that and find the new stuff that's good in that. Or you can just dig in and go into denial.

There's a before and after, that will always define your life. If you try to deny the new you, then you're just setting yourself up for endless frustration and sadness and bitterness. I didn't want to live my life that way. I decided right away to adjust to the new me and glory in it and say goodbye to the old me. There are obviously still some aspects of me in the new me — but part of myself I had to say goodbye to.

Was there anything you wished that you knew as it was happening to you? That you wished you knew beforehand?

I wish that I had been able to discern more quickly what was going on. I would have driven myself into the hospital that I passed on my way home that night from having dinner with friends. There is a clot buster that can be administered that can dissolve the clot. It has some risk. Some people, it creates hemorrhage in the brain and they die from it. But [that risk] is increasingly low. So I would have probably taken it.

A friend of my family read my post on Facebook before I put it in the book, and she then experienced a stroke while she was driving on the freeway in Berkeley. She drove herself to Alta Bates hospital and they gave her this clot busting drug. If you saw her today, you would never know that she had suffered a stroke. It really prevented the damage I sustained. That's one regret.

And when you're lying in bed in the hospital and you're coming to, you start thinking. "Why the heck was I leading such a stressful life? Why didn't I lose some weight? Why didn't I reduce my blood pressure?" I felt like I sort of was where Trump was, like I was armored and plowing through life as an alpha male. I thought, "Hey, if I keel over, I keel over." But the truth is that you often don't keel over. You actually are just incapacitated in some way, and then you put more responsibility on your family and the people who care about you.  

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Between Heaven And Hell David Talbot  michael S. Schmidt Stroke