Why does Trump keep saying odd things about that cognitive test?

For the love of all that is good in the world, Donald Trump really ought to stop saying odd things about cognitive testing.
Image: President Donald Trump
President Donald Trump during roundtable with people positively impacted by law enforcement on July 13, 2020, in Washington.Evan Vucci / AP
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By Steve Benen

For the love of all that is good in the world, Donald Trump really ought to stop saying odd things about cognitive testing.

President Donald Trump on Wednesday again bragged about the results of a cognitive test he took, saying he has “a good memory” and is “cognitively there.” In an interview with Fox News contributor Dr. Marc Siegel, Trump was asked about the test and former Vice President Joe Biden’s mental fitness. The president, 74, said that the first questions were “very easy” and the end of the test was “much more difficult.”

According to the transcript, Siegel initially asked Trump to reflect on what "should come out" about Joe Biden's health. It was, to be sure, a curious question.

But not as curious as the president's answer. To demonstrate how difficult he found the cognitive exam, Trump said the administrator read him a list of five random words, which he was expected to read back. In this case, the Republican listed five nouns: "Person. Woman. Man. Camera. TV."

These weren't the actual words on the test, of course. They were the five words that came to Trump's mind -- which isn't altogether surprising, given his preoccupation with cameras and televisions.

Nevertheless, the president said in yesterday's interview that he was able to recite the five random words, both immediately after hearing them and then again 10 to 20 minutes later. Trump boasted, “They say, ‘That’s amazing. How did you do that?’ I do it because I have, like, a good memory, because I’m cognitively there."

As part of the same celebration of himself, the president added, “They said nobody gets [the five words] in order. It’s actually not that easy, but for me, it was easy."

He went on to explain that all of this happened "the last time" he went to the hospital, which Trump thinks was "a little less than a year ago." The president added that he specifically requested an acuity test and spoke to Dr. Ronny Jackson about it.

Jackson, however, left his post as a White House physician in 2018 -- which is when Trump first started bragging about his performance on the test. The president may have "like a good memory," but he's apparently confused about the timeline of events he's eager to discuss. (It's possible that Trump was tested more than once, though it raises an obvious follow-up question: why would doctors ask the president to take the exam multiple times?)

If this sounds familiar, there's a good reason. In recent weeks, the president has brought up the cognitive test he first took two-and-a-half years ago with unnerving frequency. Two weeks ago today, in a Fox News interview, Trump went on and on about how he "aced" the exam, leaving doctors “very surprised” by how "unbelievable" his performance was.

A week later, in a different Fox News interview, the president insisted some of the questions on the test were "very hard," adding that Chris Wallace "couldn't answer many of the questions." And now, in a new Fox News interview, Trump brought the test up unprompted.

Let's circle back to our earlier coverage to review how we arrived at this very odd point.

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.

It's not. While the precise wording of different MoCA tests can vary, and the final questions are marginally more difficult, 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.

And yet, the poor guy nevertheless seems stuck, unable to shake his preoccupation with it.

In this latest interview, the Fox News medical correspondent didn't ask any follow-up questions, but the next time the president starts obsessing over this, I can think of a few possible lines of inquiry:

* Did Trump actually take the cognitive test?

* How many times?

* Will the White House release the test results?