A curious boast: Trump brags about 'acing' a cognitive test

Why would Trump's doctors be "very surprised" that he fared well on a cognitive test that most healthy adults could pass easily?
Image: Donald Trump
President Donald Trump hosts a roundtable with members of the Hispanic community in the Cabinet Room at the White House on July 9, 2020.Kevin Lamarque / Reuters
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By Steve Benen

Donald Trump called into Sean Hannity's Fox News show last night, and while the two covered a fair amount of ground, one of the more striking parts of their conversation involved a curious presidential boast. The Washington Post reported this morning:

President Trump said Thursday night on Fox News that doctors who administered him a recent cognitive test were “very surprised” that he “aced” it, continuing a long-standing preoccupation with defending his mental acumen as critics constantly question his fitness for office.

“I actually took one very recently when, you know, the radical left was saying, ‘Is he all there? Is he all there?’ I proved I was all there, because I aced it,” Trump told Hannity. “I aced the test.... I took it at Walter Reed Medical Center in front of doctors and they were very surprised. They said, ‘That’s an unbelievable thing. Rarely does anyone do what you just did.’”

As is always the case, it's worth pausing to emphasize that the president, just as a matter of course, makes things up. Despite what he said on the air, it's entirely possible that Trump did not take a cognitive test "very recently," did not "ace" it, did not "surprise" doctors, and did not hear physicians marvel at his acumen.

But just for the sake of conversation, let's consider the possibility that the presidential tale is true. If so, this is still deeply odd.

The story itself may seem familiar for a reason. It was, after all, two-and-a-half years ago when Trump had an annual physical, which according to his physician, included the Montreal Cognitive Assessment, which led his doctor to conclude that Trump has no cognitive or mental deficiencies.

But as we discussed at the time, the president celebrated the results in such a way that suggested he didn't fully appreciate what the test was all about.

“If you look at the test, it’s pretty hard to see how you could not score a 30 [out of 30],” a Washington Post piece explained in early 2018, adding, “Yes, Trump passed with flying colors, as any adult with normal cognitive function probably would.”

We’re talking about an exam, known as MoCA, that’s used to identify evidence of dementia, mental deterioration, and neurodegenerative diseases. Those who take it may be asked, for example, to draw a clock or describe the similarities between oranges and bananas.

It's a good thing, to be sure, that Trump was able to do well on the test, but let’s be clear: we’re talking about being able to clear a very low bar, especially for an adult in a position of enormous responsibility. The idea of a president bragging about "acing" such an exam is comparable to a president boasting about knowing the English alphabet.

Trump’s score is not evidence of a towering intellect; it's evidence that he's not literally suffering from dementia.

And with that in mind, I have some follow-up questions.

When Trump said last night that he took the test "very recently," was he referring to January 2018, or did he take it more than once? If it's the latter, is there a reason the president's physicians thought it was necessary to re-administer the Montreal Cognitive Assessment?

Similarly, why would Trump's doctors be "very surprised" that he fared well on a cognitive test that most healthy adults could pass easily?