Could Donald Trump Have ADHD?
On July 25, the American Psychoanalytic Association lifted the decades-long rule that members should not comment on the mental health of public figures. Even before then, some experts had suggested the 45th President demonstrates symptoms of undiagnosed ADHD. Here, we probe the DSM-V and public records looking for answers.
Reviewed on May 3, 2018
If Republicans and Democrats agree on anything, it is this: There has never been a President of the United States quite like Donald J. Trump.
Trump’s brazen, shoot-from-the-hip style appealed to many voters fed up with Washington politics-as-usual. And since his inauguration, Trump has made a show of breaking the rules — shaking up the political establishment with everything from unorthodox decisions to off-the-cuff comments to full-blown international scandals.
As the political maelstrom continues to churn, some pundits have questioned the president’s mental state and wondered aloud whether he has a diagnosable mental health condition. Some ADHD experts, including George Sachs, Psy.D., and Ben Michaelis, Ph.D., posit that Donald Trump might be running the country with undiagnosed ADHD.
And they’re not alone. Multiple other sources — from Tony Schwartz, the ghostwriter of Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal, to NATO officials — have cited the President’s short attention span, impulsive tendencies, restless behavior, and daily dopamine fix via Twitter. And the President himself has credited his long-standing distractible nature for his business success, saying in his 2004 book Think Like a Billionaire: “Most successful people have very short attention spans.”
Of course, no one can or should diagnose any mental health condition without a full evaluation, and nothing in Trump’s public medical records indicate he has ever been diagnosed with ADHD. But Trump, age 71, grew up in a time when the ADHD diagnosis was rare. In fact, the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” (DSM) didn’t recognize the precursor to attention deficit disorder, “kinetic impulse disorder,” until Trump was 22 years old. Yet many observers and close contacts of the now-president believe that behaviors he’s exhibited since childhood — ranging from the impulsive to the inattentive — could indicate underlying attention deficit.
The editors at ADDitude, a 19-year-old publication dedicated to ADHD news and information, are not trained clinicians; we cannot make a diagnosis. Nor would we ask our esteemed scientific advisory board to do so without first conducting a thorough in-person evaluation. Since that is unlikely, we’ve combed through the DSM’s latest ADHD diagnosis guidelines looking for clues and insight.
According to the DSM-V, an individual may qualify for an ADHD diagnosis only if five or more symptoms under one or more of the categories below are present before age 12, are present in more than one setting (i.e. work and home), and “interfere with, or reduce the quality of, social, school, or work functioning.” Read the DSM-V diagnosis criteria below, and make your own judgment of the President’s habits and behaviors.
– Fails to give close attention to details or makes careless mistakes in schoolwork, work, or other activities — Trump is known for making spelling errors in tweets (the confounding “covfefe” is perhaps the most obvious example). He has misspelled “honored” as “honered,” “tap” as “tapp,” and “unprecedented” as “unpresidented” — painting a picture of an impatient typist who doesn’t take the time to proofread the words reaching 34 million followers.
– Has difficulty sustaining attention — Jack O’Donnell, a former business associate of Trump’s, said in an interview that if he wanted to run something by Donald, he would do it immediately upon seeing him. Otherwise, he added, “If you hit him too late in the conversation, he might say, ‘Let’s talk about it later’ — and he was gone.”
O’Donnell isn’t the only one who’s noticed Trump’s tendency to get bored quickly. When preparing for Trump’s first NATO meeting earlier this year, organizers encouraged presenters to cut down their speeches to less than four minutes — to better keep the President engaged and less likely to drift off.
The magazine Foreign Policy, in its article “NATO Frantically Tries to Trump-Proof President’s First Visit,” quoted one anonymous NATO source who said: “It’s like they’re preparing to deal with a child — someone with a short attention span and mood who has no knowledge of NATO, no interest in in-depth policy issues, nothing.”
– Does not seem to listen when spoken to directly — Early in his presidency, it was revealed that while Trump appeared to be nodding along to remarks given by Shinzo Abe, the Prime Minister of Japan, he was in fact not wearing a translation device in his ear, and thus could not actually be listening.
– Does not follow through on instructions and fails to finish schoolwork, chores, or duties in the workplace — At his transition meeting with former President Barack Obama, Trump “seemed surprised” by the job ahead of him, insider reports said. As of this publishing, he has nominated just 36 percent of cabinet positions in his administration. By comparison, Obama had nominated 78 percent of his cabinet appointees at the same point in his presidency.
Most notably, perhaps, the Trump administration and its allies in the House and Senate have failed in two attempts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, a cornerstone of Trump’s presidential campaign platform.
– Has difficulty organizing tasks and activities — After his Electoral College victory, Trump and his team struggled to organize their personnel and materials for the post-Obama transition. One anonymous advisor told Deadspin that the Trump team lacked a coherent plan to manage the complex White House overhaul. “The best illustration is there were no prepared policy statements or papers,” the advisor said. “Whereas in 2012 Romney’s team had hundreds of pages worth of federal policy transitions planned and written out, Trump’s team had (as of Wednesday) literally no pages.”
– Avoids, dislikes, or is reluctant to engage in tasks that require sustained mental effort — Trump has asked his staff to keep his daily briefings short, and fill them with “killer graphics” whenever possible. “I like bullets, or I like as little as possible,” Trump said in an interview before his inauguration. “I don’t need, you know, 200-page reports on something that can be handled on a page.”
– Easily distracted by extraneous stimuli — Trump once paused in the middle of his own speech on infrastructure projects to wave at a passing boat captain. “We’re going to restore America’s industrial might,” he said. “And I look here, and, something, those barges, they’ve been waiting for us to say hello. The captain says please wave. Hello, Captain.”
In March 2017, former Florida governor and presidential candidate Jeb Bush said of Trump, “He’s a distraction in and of himself. He’s got a lot of work to do, and some of these things — the wiretapping and all of this stuff — is a complete distraction that makes it harder to accomplish the things I know he wants to do.”
– Fidgets with hands or feet or squirms in seat — Donald Trump often moves items on tables when he sits down, as late-night TV host Jimmy Kimmel realized.
– Appears “on the go” or acts as if “driven by a motor” — Trump is an avid golfer, and former playing partners have reported that he speeds through courses at a breakneck pace. Sportswriter Rick Reilly, who played a round of golf with Trump over a decade ago, wrote that they completed 18 holes in less than three hours — “and that,” Reilly wrote, included “stopping often to harangue the stonemason, the path paver, and the greenskeeper to redo the bricks, or re-trim a tree, or re-pave a path that is not absolutely, immaculately Trumpalicious.”
– Talks excessively — The President has been known to give long-winded speeches that stray widely from his prepared remarks, though this is hardly a unique trait among politicians. He’s also a habitual tweeter, often going on late-night “Tweetstorms” regarding whatever’s on his mind (or on TV) that day.
– Blurts out the answers before the questions have been completed — Trump often speaks without clearing it with his team, which has led to some scrambling on the part of the White House. He once told the Associated Press that a tax reform plan would be rolled out in the next five days; his aides, however, were unaware of this and had no such intentions. “The reason your head is spinning on this is that the plan isn’t even written yet,” one senior White House official said shortly after Trump’s remarks.
Speaking off the cuff, he has also contradicted statements made by the White House team, as he did when speaking on camera with NBC News anchor Lester Holt about the firing of FBI director James Comey. After Vice President Mike Pence said the firing came at the recommendation of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, Trump said quite the opposite on camera: “I was going to fire Comey — my decision… I was going to fire regardless of recommendation.”
– Has difficulty awaiting turn — During a NATO meeting earlier this year, Trump was caught on video shoving the Prime Minister of Montenegro in an apparent bid to get to the front of the group of world leaders. On the day of his Inauguration, he was also criticized for leaving behind his wife, Melania Trump, as he eagerly bounded out of their shared limousine.
– Interrupts or intrudes on others — During the debates, Trump repeatedly interrupted or spoke over his adversaries. After his first head-to-head match with Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, The New York Times counted 39 interruptions from Trump — compared to just 8 by Clinton.
What Do These Symptoms Mean?
Do the examples above prove that Donald Trump has ADHD? Absolutely not.
Could strategically selected videos and quotes be found to support almost any similar claim against a public figure like Trump? Quite likely.
The fact is: Only a qualified professional with experience evaluating symptoms of ADHD in adults could make that determination following diagnostic interviews, test analysis, and a study of Trump’s family medical history. Without a full medical history and a transparent diagnostic process, we may never know whether Trump has attention deficit or, as others have suggested, BMD, Narcissistic Personality Disorder, or early signs of dementia.
On July 25, the American Psychoanalytic Association announced that its members were no longer prohibited from speaking about the mental health of public figures such as the President. The magazine Stat wrote this:
The impetus for the email was “belief in the value of psychoanalytic knowledge in explaining human behavior,” said psychoanalytic association past president Dr. Prudence Gourguechon, a psychiatrist in Chicago. “We don’t want to prohibit our members from using their knowledge responsibly.”
Still, many experts have criticized the recent trend of “armchair diagnosis,” accusing unqualified pundits of jumping to conclusions without first engaging in a full or accurate evaluation.
In a Huffington Post op-ed titled “Does Trump Have ADHD? My Professional Opinion,” clinical psychologist George Sachs emphasized that these speculations do no one any good. “When it comes to ADHD, many people are quick to assume that they ‘know it when they see it,’” he wrote. “To be sure, certain aspects of ADHD do tend to manifest themselves in pretty obvious ways. However, as a clinician, I recommend that people avoid jumping to quick conclusions, which besides being wrong, often lead us to put people in a box and then wipe our hands of the issue.”
He conceded, however, that “Donald Trump could very well benefit by having an ADHD specialist at his side.”