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“The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump”: Psychiatrist Dr. Bandy Lee on Growing Mental Health Concerns

StoryDecember 08, 2017
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Questions over President Donald Trump’s mental health continue to grow, following his speech on Wednesday where he slurred his speech and mispronounced words during an address on Israel. White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders responded Thursday to the mounting concerns by announcing that Trump has scheduled a physical health exam. Meanwhile, Pentagon leaders last month told a Senate panel they would ignore any unlawful order by the president to launch a nuclear strike. The testimony came as part of the first congressional hearings in more than 40 years on the president’s authority to start a nuclear war. We speak with Dr. Bandy Lee, a forensic psychiatrist on the faculty of Yale School of Medicine and an internationally recognized expert on violence. She edited the best-selling book, “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President.”

Dr. Bandy Lee declares that she is not representing the views of Yale University, Yale School of Medicine or Yale Department of Psychiatry.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. We end today’s show with growing questions about President Donald Trump’s mental health. On Wednesday, Trump slurred his speech and mispronounced words during an address on Israel.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Let us rethink old assumptions and open our hearts and minds to possible and possibilities. And finally, I ask the leaders of the region, political and religious, Israeli and Palestinian, Jewish and Christian and Muslim, to join us in the noble quest for lasting peace. Thank you. God bless you. God bless Israel. God bless the Palestinians. And God bless the United States. Thank you very much.

AMY GOODMAN: White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders responded to questions about Trump’s slurred speech by announcing he’s scheduled a physical health exam.

PRESS SECRETARY SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: The president’s throat was dry. Nothing more than that. He does have a physical scheduled for the first part of next year, the full physical that most presidents go through, that will take place at Walter Reed. And those records will be released by the doctor following that taking place.

AMY GOODMAN: This comes as New York Times chief White House reporter Maggie Haberman commented on Trump’s behavior when she was interviewed on CNN last week.

MAGGIE HABERMAN: Something is unleashed with him lately. I don’t know what is causing it. I don’t know how to describe it. It may be pressure from—

ALISYN CAMEROTA: Oh, you see a difference in the past what? Days? Weeks?

MAGGIE HABERMAN: I think the last couple of days’ tweets have been—


MAGGIE HABERMAN: —markedly accelerated in terms of seeming a little unmoored.

AMY GOODMAN: Last month, Pentagon leaders told a Senate panel they would ignore any unlawful order by the president to launch a nuclear strike. The testimony came as part of the first congressional hearings in more than 40 years on the president’s authority to start a nuclear war. This is Connecticut Democratic—Democrat Chris Murphy raised some of these questions.

But, for more, we’re joined by someone who has led a discussion of mental health professionals who are concerned about President Trump’s psychological instability. Dr. Bandy Lee is a forensic psychiatrist on the faculty of Yale School of Medicine, an internationally recognized expert on violence. She edited the book The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President. The book became a best-seller when it was published in October. It sold out over and over again.

Dr. Bandy Lee, welcome to Democracy Now! What are your concerns? And are they increasing?

DR. BANDY LEE: Well, we have been concerned about the mental stability of the president, as well as his dangerousness, since—pretty much since his campaign, but heightened since his election. And I have been flooded with phone calls and emails, messages, since morning after election. Much of my profession had been silenced because of what is called the Goldwater rule. It basically states that—

AMY GOODMAN: Explain the Goldwater rule.

DR. BANDY LEE: —psychiatrists are not to diagnose a public figure without having examined them personally and gotten consent. But, interestingly, the American Psychiatric Association modified its own interpretation of the rule in March of this year to basically say that psychiatrists are not allowed to say anything about their speech or behavior, even in an emergency.

And I felt that that actually went against the ethical principles of our profession. And so I held a conference in April to discuss the ethical rules, and invited Robert Jay Lifton, as well as a number of other renowned members of my field. And only about 20 people showed up, to a large auditorium. Basically, they were afraid. They were afraid to be—of being targeted litigiously by the president or physically by his violence-prone followers. But when the news got out, in the national and international news, hundreds of mental health professionals got in touch with me. And now we’re in the thousands.

AMY GOODMAN: So, the movement is called the “duty to warn” movement, your conference, the “Duty to Warn” conference. What does that mean, “duty to warn”?

DR. BANDY LEE: That is actually based on—the phrase comes from a California case, which has been litigated hundreds of times, compared to the Goldwater case, which was only litigated once. But our profession, in general, has a duty to report, a duty to warn and a duty to take steps to protect potential victims in the case of danger. And we, as mental health professionals, routinely screen for a risk and are involved in preventing violence, as well as intervening, in collaboration with security forces, generally. And so when we have information that would cause us to suspect danger, we do have an obligation to intervene.

AMY GOODMAN: So you’re just back from Capitol Hill. You’re urging lawmakers, Democrat and Republican, to call for an urgent mental evaluation of Donald Trump.

DR. BANDY LEE: Yes, because usually when there’s a sign of danger, it’s an emergency. So, what we do is we contain the person, remove them from access to weapons and do an urgent evaluation. This is what we have been urging for with regard to the president. He has shown a number of signs, showing proneness to violence. He has incited violence in the past. He’s shown an attraction to violence as a coping strategy of his own. He has taunted hostile nations with nuclear power. Basically, the risk, in our minds, is quite high.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, I wanted to ask you—there are those who are really questioning the “duty to warn” movement. There is the disability blogger who said bigotry is not a mental illness. There was a piece that was done by Noah Feldman, “Stop Using Language of Mental Health to Criticize President Trump.” And if you can respond to some of this criticism?

DR. BANDY LEE: Actually, we’re often confused with a non-professional group called a Duty to Warn. We are actually a national coalition of mental health professionals who believe in the duty to warn as a principle of our profession, because we are—we have an obligation not just to our individual patients, but also to the public. And—

AMY GOODMAN: Richard Friedman wrote in an op-ed piece in The New York Times, “There is one last reason we should avoid psychiatrically labeling our leaders: It lets them off the moral hook. Not all misbehavior reflects psychopathology; the fact is that ordinary human meanness and incompetence are far more common than mental illness. We should not be in the business of medicalizing bad actors.” Your response, Dr. Lee?

DR. BANDY LEE: Well, medical—mental impairment is not mutually exclusive with criminal responsibility. In fact, only about 1 percent of murder cases are deemed not guilty by reason of insanity. What we’re saying is actually that the combination of mental instability and criminal-mindedness actually makes one more dangerous. So we’re basically just warning about danger. We’re not making diagnoses. We’re calling for an evaluation.

I hear that Mr. Trump is undergoing a physical exam in January. I hope it includes a screen for mental capacity, the capacity to serve, the basic ability to take in correct information and advice when needed, to process that information to make sound, logical decisions based on facts and real consequences.

AMY GOODMAN: As we wrap up, how does this relate to the issue of impeachment?

DR. BANDY LEE: In my mind, well, that’s really not my area. My expertise is in medicine and psychiatry and violence prevention. But when I met with the lawmakers, it seemed that while the 25th Amendment would be the only area that deals with presidential disability, even that is a political decision. In other words, in courts or for legal bodies, we give our expert opinion based on medical data, but all we do is give recommendations. The disability or unfitness for duty, these things are still legal decisions, in all circumstances. It seems in this case it would be a political decision, whereby it can play a role.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to do Part 2 of this discussion and put it on our web exclusives at democracynow.org. Dr. Bandy Lee, forensic psychiatrist, internationally recognized expert on violence, editor of The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President. She is an organizer of the Yale University “Duty to Warn” conference at the Yale Medical School.

Happy birthday, Carla Wills!

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