Victoria Sheridan

Victoria Sheridan is an intern at the Prospect.

Recent Articles

Clinician Activists Grapple with 25th Amendment and Trump’s Mental Health

Mulling over President Trump’s mental health has become a national preoccupation, with commentators from Morning Joe co-host Mika Brzezinski to politicians like Connecticut Democratic Senator Chris Murphy all eager to weigh in on the issue. But one group of activists hope that their words will hold a little more weight and speed up Trump’s departure from the White House.

Duty to Warn, a group of mental health professionals, has called for Trump’s removal from office under the 25th Amendment. The group argues that Trump exhibits many of the traits of malignant narcissism—a condition characterized by high levels of selfishness, grandiosity, paranoia, antisocial personality, and sadism, all which make him unfit to govern.

However, the group’s stance is controversial. An American Psychiatric Association guideline known as the “Goldwater Rule” states that it is unethical for a clinician to offer a professional opinion about the mental health of someone they haven’t diagnosed in person and without the patient’s consent. During Barry Goldwater’s 1964 bid for the presidency, a Fact Magazine poll found that nearly 1,200 psychiatrists believed that Goldwater was unfit for the job.

While the APA acknowledges that the legal concept of “duty to warn” (which varies by state) requires a psychiatrist to disregard confidentiality when he or she has reason to believe a patient is a threat, “it does not apply if there is no physician-patient relationship.”

But psychologist John Gartner, the head of Duty to Warn, cites numerous reports about Trump’s alarming behavior, including comments from the president’s inner circle, as evidence that there are clear warning signs that Trump is unfit. Trump’s longtime friend and adviser Tom Barrack has found his behavior shocking; Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee has doubted his stability; and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reportedly called Trump a “moron” after he expressed a desire to expand the country’s nuclear arsenal.

The German psychoanalyst Erich Fromm coined the term “malignant narcissism” to describe leaders like Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin. According to Gartner, “when personalities [exhibiting this condition] achieve power, they become dramatically worse.” He believes that Trump is deteriorating psychologically, which means that he could make a rash decision, such as launching nuclear weapons. “Knowing that Donald Trump meets all criteria for malignant narcissism is actually a matter of national security,” Gartner said at an October Duty to Warn town hall meeting in Washington.

Gartner supports two pending bills: the Oversight Commission on Presidential Capacity (OCPC) Act and the Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act. The OCPC Act, introduced by Democratic Representative Jamie Raskin of Maryland, calls for Congress to establish an 11-person committee of physicians, psychiatrists, and former high-ranking members of the executive branch (such as a president, vice president, secretary of state, or attorney general) to determine whether a president is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office” under Section 4 of the 25th Amendment. Each party would appoint five committee members, who would then select an 11th person to chair the commission. Raskin, a constitutional lawyer, says he wishes that the congressional body described in the 25th Amendment had been established “50 years ago.”

Democratic Representative Ted Lieu of California introduced the nuclear weapons bill, which aims to prevent the president from launching a “first-use nuclear strike”—meaning a strike against a country that has not already attacked the United States with nuclear weapons first—unless Congress has made a declaration of war explicitly authorizing the strike.

However, Gartner’s decision to launch two political action committees, the Duty to Warn PAC and super PAC, which he plans to use to support social media campaigns to target local and state voters, has raised eyebrows. Raskin was named Duty to Warn’s “Legislator of the Year” at an October kickoff event in Washington, and received a $1,000 check from the group. Gartner says that the group intends to support candidates who say they will vote for bills that could restrict Trump’s access to nuclear codes, or lead to his removal from office under the 25th Amendment.

Gartner is adamant that his activism is not motivated by partisan politics, or any interest in only electing Democrats. If a Republican candidate for Congress pledges to support Raskin’s or Lieu’s bills, Gartner said he would “support that person double.” Asked about the Duty to Warn PACs, Raskin says, “They’re definitely supporting the legislation and trying to bring attention generally to the 25th Amendment.”

Prior to setting up Duty to Warn, Gartner says he had never been politically active. “It’s so obvious what we’re doing and why we’re doing this,” Gartner tells The American Prospect. “I’m doing it because as a psychologist, I see this person as a murderous madman.”

However, some doctors do not agree with Gartner’s moves. Psychiatrist Allen Frances, author of Twilight of American Sanity, a recent book about the Trump age, calls Trump the “most dangerous man on earth” and agrees that his access to the nuclear codes should be restricted.

But Frances says that while the danger Trump poses is obvious, diagnosing his behavior is a “distraction” and stigmatizes the mentally ill. He adds that while Duty to Warn’s diagnosis is a prelude to a call to invoke the 25th Amendment to remove Trump, that “will never happen politically.”

Raskin suggests that mental illnesses do not automatically disqualify someone from being able to execute the powers of the office. Abraham Lincoln, who many historians believe suffered from clinical depression, was “one of our greatest presidents,” he says. Yet even without a formal diagnosis, Raskin thinks there is a strong case for Trump’s removal. “The question isn’t does he have this or that … disorder,” Raskin says. “The question is simply: Would a citizen think [a president] is dangerously unfit to execute the powers and duties of office?” He adds, “Mental health professionals, psychiatrists, and psychologists have every bit as much right as any other citizen to opine about that.” 

Menendez Mistrial Is a Relief to Democrats -- for Now

The bribery trial of New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez ended in a mistrial on Thursday, quelling Democrats’ fears about an open Senate seat being filled by a Republican.

If Menendez, a Democrat who was indicted on 18 counts of corruption, had been convicted and subsequently resigned or been expelled before January 16, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie would have had the authority to appoint a senator to serve in his place until December 2018.

Presumably, Christie would have appointed a Republican to the position (some speculated that he might have even appointed himself), tilting the balance of power to GOP even further: As Vox recently reported, a 53rd Republican senator would have the potential to breathe new life into the Obamacare repeal effort.

If Menendez is retried and found guilty, his resignation or expulsion would be less daunting for Democrats. After Democrat Phil Murphy is sworn in as the state’s new governor this January, the responsibility of appointing a replacement for Menendez would fall into his hands.

Menendez was indicted on bribery and conspiracy charges: He allegedly used his position to protect the business interests of a friend, Salomon Melgen, a wealthy Florida doctor, in exchange for gifts and campaign contributions.

If this trial was any indication, a second trial could be a lengthy one. Menendez was indicted in 2015, but the case did not go to trial until September of this year. Earlier this month, a juror left for a long-scheduled vacation during the deliberations. The judge replaced her and the deliberations restarted this week. Soon afterward, the jurors announced that they were deadlocked.

Menendez is still up for reelection in 2018, but this scandal could weaken his chances of winning. According to a September Quinnipiac University poll, half of New Jersey voters believe that he should not be re-elected. His approval rating had also dropped to 31 percent.

But in October, he told CNN that he was confident he would be acquitted and that his poll numbers would improve as a result.  "I have no intention of being anything but exonerated," Menendez said. "So therefore, I'm not contemplating anything but reelection next year."

If he does decide to run, a handful of the state’s Democratic leaders, including Murphy, have pledged that they would throw their support behind him. 

Americans Say Mainstream Media’s Coverage of Science Is Less Than Stellar

A September Pew Research Center poll has reinvigorated the years-old debate over how mainstream news media outlets cover science.

Pew found that even though half of Americans believe that “specialty sources” like science magazines, documentaries, or science museums present scientific information correctly, few people actually rely on them for news about science—even though they believe that news outlets often fail to present scientific developments accurately.

Most people—54 percent—regularly get their information on hot-button policy issues like vaccination, stem cell research, GMOs, and climate change from newspapers, magazines, and other general news outlets that cover a wide variety of science issues and stories. But even though only 28 percent of those surveyed said these sources “get the facts right” most of the time, just 25 percent turn to science magazines, and only 12 percent rely on science museums for information.

Not surprisingly, Americans are not pleased with this situation. When asked whether the news media did a “good job” or a “bad job” of covering science, 57 percent responded that they did a good job, while 41 percent said they did a bad job. Pew also asked respondents if problems with science coverage rested with “the way reporters cover it” or “the way researchers publish it.” More than 70 percent of respondents identified reporters as more of a problem, while only 24 percent thought researchers were at fault. (Pew conducted the poll in late May and mid-June, surveying about 4,000 adults.)

Scientists and researchers also have complained about lackluster mainstream news stories. In 2015, Harvard University PhD student and researcher Samuel Mehr spoke out about how newspapers and magazines simplify scientific findings, in response to coverage of a study he had co-authored.

Mehr and his co-authors focused on how music classes could affect the cognitive abilities of children. In the study, one group of children received six weeks of music lessons while other groups of children participated in art projects or had no organized activities. When all the children took a cognitive test at the end of the six weeks, the children in the music classes performed no better than the other groups of children.

But Mehr acknowledged that there were a number of caveats that could explain why the music classes did not seem to have an effect on the children’s cognitive test scores. Time magazine’s report on the study, however, concluded that “music may not make you smarter.” Mehr pointed out that the actual study did not measure intelligence, and that the reporter had confused correlation with causation.

Nearly a decade ago, science writer Cristine Russell offered suggestions for journalists covering climate change. Russell explained that when new findings about climate change surface, “the subtleties of the science, and its uncertainty, might be missed by reporters unfamiliar with the territory.” Because the results of one study can be contradictory to other studies, Russell said that scientists look for consistent patterns throughout multiple studies before coming to a conclusion. “Journalists should avoid ‘yo-yo’ coverage with each new study and try to put the latest findings in context,” she said.

Today, the problem that Russell identified continues to seep into mainstream news reports. According to Pew, this “yo-yo” coverage was one of the bigger issues in science news that Americans identified: 43 percent of Americans believed that the media are “too quick to report findings that may not hold up.” Another 30 percent also said the news media oversimplify research findings.

In March, Alex Berezow of the American Council on Science and Health, along with editors from RealClearScience, ranked mainstream news outlets’ science coverage using two criteria: How much of the coverage was based on evidence, and how compelling the science stories were. The highest-ranked sources were niche publications like the weekly science journal Nature and Science Magazine. However, a few general news outlets like The Atlantic, Vox, and The Guardian ranked highly. (Two outlets that Berezow writes for—The Economist and the BBC—also did well in the rankings.)

However, NPR, The Washington Post, MSNBC, and CNN fared relatively poorly. Berezow was particularly critical of The New York Times, which he said frequently gives a platform to “fringe” doctors, “pseudoscientific claims,” and discredited studies.

Though Berezow’s rankings are based on only two criteria and include just a fraction of news sources, his findings also highlight some of the mistakes many journalists frequently make. The warning signs include: failing to explain a study’s methodology or using technical terms (which suggests that the writer didn’t understand the original report); failing to include any “limitations on the conclusions of research” and making sweeping conclusions based on a single study; or trying to connect the results of a single study to larger, unrelated issues.

Berezow concluded that inaccurate reporting not only mars the reputation of an individual reporter and his or her outlet, it damages the credibility of journalists everywhere.