Forget Hillary Clinton's medical records – what we really need to see is the state of Donald Trump's tax returns

Trump refuses to release his tax returns, seeking to hide goodness knows what. That he doesn’t pay a cent in tax? That he’s in cahoots with Russian oligarchs? 

Rupert Cornwell
Friday 16 September 2016 16:47 BST
Donald Trump addresses the Economic Club of New York
Donald Trump addresses the Economic Club of New York (AP)

So Hillary Clinton’s back on the campaign trail, and Donald Trump has released a medical report confirming the obvious: he may a dreadful man, but he’s the picture of robust health. Message to Planet Earth: you can start rotating again. And message to the American media: there is other and more important news out there than Hillary’s brief bout with pneumonia.

You get the impression that Americans are paranoid about presidential health, that they see them with fury at the documented cases of previous presidents who have concealed alarming health problems. Not so.

Gallup did a poll on the issue – admittedly back in 2004, before the 24/7 news cycle had fully taken root, and before the internet and social media could turn the fluttering of a few butterfly wings into a full-scale hurricane. But its findings are fascinating.

Only 38 per cent thought a president should be legally obliged to release health information that might affect her ability to serve – compared to 61 per cent who thought he or she had the same right to privacy as an ordinary citizen.

Clinton Gives First Speech Since Pneumonia Diagnosis

That said, four out of five believed he or she should undergo a thorough annual physical and mental exam to make sure they were still up to the job. The mental part undoubtedly reflects the Alzheimer’s that Reagan (who died of the disease that same year of 2004) had visibly suffered, during his second term especially.

These figures seem pretty reasonable to me. I’d bet a similar poll in Britain tomorrow would produce a very similar result. And despite the current hoopla, I’d bet Americans’ feelings haven’t changed greatly either. The problem isn’t health, it’s secrecy; and the merciless, omnipresent spotlight generated by this most brutal and unconventional election in modern times.

Yes, Clinton and Trump are among the oldest aspirants to the White House. He’d be the oldest president ever to take office. She’d be the second oldest, after Reagan. Nonetheless, though she’s had her health problems, she’s in decent shape for a woman of 68. Anyone can get the flu, or a mild case of pneumonia.

It’s not the crime, however, but the cover-up which matters. Boy, did she make a mess of telling us about it, reinforcing the conviction that she’s pathologically addicted to secrecy, that she simply can’t come clean quickly about anything, be it her health or her emails.

If Americans are told about candidates’ health issues upfront and early – even issues far more serious than Clinton’s – they’re not too bothered. Dick Cheney, one of the most powerful vice-presidents ever and the proverbial heartbeat from the Oval Office for eight years, had been plagued with heart problems that continued throughout the George W Bush administration (twice I had to update The Independent’s standing obituary of him during that time.)

But people weren’t bothered. No one suggested Cheney wasn’t up to the job because of his precarious health. You might detest his hard-right neo-conservatism, but that was another matter. Ditto John McCain, who, had he won in 2008, would have been the oldest ever president. McCain, savagely treated as a POW in Vietnam, had a long medical history and suffered from skin cancer. He released hundreds of pages of medical records. Problem solved. The issue rarely arose in his campaign against Barack Obama.

Keep quiet though, and you’re asking for trouble – as Trump may soon learn, on another topic. Still he refuses to release his tax returns, as every presidential candidate has done since Nixon. Hillary’s returns for the last 20 years are out there for all to see. Trump refuses, seeking to hide goodness knows what. That he doesn’t pay a cent in tax? That he’s in cahoots with Russian oligarchs? That he’s not the generous donor to charity he pretends to be? Those tax returns would tell us far more about his fitness for office than Hillary’s medical records say about hers.

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