Maybe Trump should stop talking about that cognitive test

Trump is still talking about faring well on a test designed to identify cognitive deficiencies. He said the final questions were "very hard." They're not.
Image: TOPSHOT-US-POLITICS-TRUMP
President Donald Trump speaks at the White House on July 20, 2020.Jim Watson / AFP - Getty Images
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By Steve Benen

Donald Trump and Fox News' Chris Wallace covered quite a bit of ground in their latest interview, though I'll confess I didn't expect to see another round of conversation on this story.

Trump then got into a long exchange with Wallace over his recent claim that he had "aced" a cognitive test. After Trump challenged Biden to take such an exam, Wallace said he had recently taken the same exam and found it to be quite easy. "They have a picture, and it says 'what's that?' and it's an elephant," Wallace said.

The president, apparently feeling a little defensive, conceded that the "first few questions are easy." He quickly added, "But I'll bet you couldn't even answer the last five questions. I'll bet you couldn't. They get very hard, the last five questions." Trump, seemingly eager to insult the Fox News host, went on to insist that Wallace "couldn't answer many of the questions."

Let's pause to review how we arrived at this very odd point.

As regular readers know, in early 2018, Trump had an annual physical, which according to his physician, included the Montreal Cognitive Assessment (MoCA), which led his doctor to conclude that Trump has no cognitive or mental deficiencies. The trouble, of course, was that 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 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.

Trump somehow convinced himself, however, that it's akin to a Mensa exam, and his ability to get a perfect score is proof of his genius.

Indeed, he keeps talking about it. Two weeks ago, during a different Fox News interview, Trump boasted that doctors were “very surprised” that he “aced” the cognitive test. (He didn't explain why physicians asked him to take it or why they were surprised. The White House also wouldn't release any information, including the test results.)

As the public saw yesterday, the president is not only still focusing attention on this, and not only arguing that Wallace couldn't fare as well as he did on the exam, Trump has also added a new argument: the last five questions on the test are "very hard."

I don't know why he would think that.

While the precise wording of different MoCA tests can vary, and the final questions are marginally more difficult than identifying an elephant, one sample test included among the final questions asked respondents to name words that begin with the letter F -- with the expectation that people could list at least 11 in a minute. Another final question asked respondents to recite a three-digit number backwards.

To be sure, if the president is telling the truth about having "aced" the test, I'm glad. It's a good thing if he did well. But let’s be clear: we’re talking about being able to clear a very low bar for an adult in a position of enormous responsibility.

The fact that Trump keeps pointing to this as proof of intellectual prowess is unsettling.