White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders holds the daily briefing at the White House, September 12, 2017.
Jonathan Ernst/REUTERS

White House confronts questions about Trump’s ‘mental fitness’

Donald Trump rattled observers around the world on Tuesday night, boasting about the size of his “nuclear button,” and effectively daring North Korea to demonstrate its nuclear capabilities. It prompted a new round of speculation about whether the American president is unwell.

In fact, at White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ briefing yesterday, a reporter broached the subject that much of the political world thinks about, but rarely discusses aloud.

REPORTER: Should Americans be concerned about the president’s mental fitness that he appears to be speaking so lightly about threats regarding a nuclear button?

SANDERS: I think the president and the people of this country should be concerned about the mental fitness of the leader of North Korea.

Taken at face value, Sanders’ argument isn’t exactly reassuring. If Americans should be concerned about Kim Jong-un’s mental fitness, it leads to related questions about why Trump is publicly taunting a nuclear-armed rogue actor, seemingly trying to provoke a highly dangerous crisis.

But let’s not miss the forest for the trees here. We’ve now reached the point at which reporters can ask the White House press secretary about the sitting president’s mental fitness – and no one finds that particularly odd.

Under normal circumstances, a reporter wouldn’t ask the White House press secretary about whether the public should be “concerned about the president’s mental fitness.” For that matter, a press secretary for a normal president would be offended by the question, dismiss it as ridiculous, and chastise the reporter for asking a needlessly inflammatory question.

But we made a right turn at normal quite a while ago, and all kinds of observers are openly concerned about whether Donald Trump is, to borrow Dana Milbank’s phrase, “barking mad.”

What does it tell us about the state of the nation that the White House press secretary was asked about the president’s mental fitness and she responded by changing the subject?

Postscript: In the same briefing yesterday, Sanders added, in reference to U.S. policy towards North Korea, “I think it’s extremely clear what the president’s position is, and our position on North Korea hasn’t changed since the beginning.”

I wish that were true. It’s plainly not.

Donald Trump

White House confronts questions about Trump's 'mental fitness'