Joseph R. Biden’s push to make the presidential election “a battle for the soul of the nation” has been muddied by questions about his mental fitness that have dogged him for more than a year and burst into public view Wednesday with startling clarity.
Mr. Biden’s frustration with the public prodding boiled over in an interview with a CBS News reporter who pressed him on whether he had undergone a cognitive exam.
“No, I haven’t taken a test. Why the hell would I take a test? Come on, man,” the Democrat said in a virtual interview with Black and Hispanic journalists.
Mr. Biden likened asking about a cognitive test to asking the reporter, who is Black, to take a test to see whether “you’re taking cocaine or not” before the interview.
“What do you think, huh?” the former vice president said. “Are you a junkie?”
The Republican National Committee pounced, saying the response is Mr. Biden’s latest offense of Black Americans.
“This is not Joe Biden’s first insensitive and bigoted comment about the Black community,” Paris Dennard, the RNC’s senior adviser for Black media affairs, said in an email.
Mr. Biden suffered from a stutter as a child and has never been known as a wordsmith. The difficulties he has getting his message across has provided more ammunition for his critics.
Questions about his mental sharpness also put a greater focus on Mr. Biden’s running mate, whom he plans to tap before the Democratic National Convention.
President Trump’s mental acuity was questioned in 2016. He helped ease some of those concerns by tapping steady and lucid Mike Pence as his wingman.
Mr. Trump became the oldest person to assume the presidency at age 70. Four years later, he is suggesting that Mr. Biden, 77, is mentally and physically handicapped and, as a result, could be looking for a way out of the three scheduled presidential debates.
“Biden can’t put two sentences together,” Mr. Trump said in a recent interview with Fox News. “They wheel him out. He goes up — he repeats — they ask him questions. He reads a teleprompter, and then he goes back into his basement.
“You tell me the American people want to have that in an age where we’re in trouble with other nations that are looking to do numbers on us,” he said.
Former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who has served as Mr. Trump’s personal attorney, has said the president should double down on the charge.
“I have a good friend who has early stage Alzheimer’s, and they could be twins,” Mr. Giuliani told Politico, adding that nobody thinks Mr. Trump has mental issues.
“There’s no comparison between the two people in terms of being able to finish a sentence, being aware of where they are and being able to go through five sentences that stick together,” he said.
Democrats say it is fair to ask about a candidate’s mental faculties but that Mr. Trump’s intense focus on the subject is a desperate attempt to distract voters and could come back to haunt the president.
“That is the pot calling the kettle black,” said TJ Bucholz, a Democratic strategist. “I continue to be concerned about the president’s mental state.
“Joe Biden has convinced me that he is more mentally and physically up for the task of president, and to be clear he couldn’t be any worse than the guy who has the job now,” Mr. Bucholz said.
Mr. Trump has been the target of criticism and mockery for some of his questionable comments and verbal miscues, including a suggestion that COVID-19 could be treated by injecting disinfectant.
He provoked more ridicule this week during a signing ceremony at the White House when he pronounced Yosemite National Park as “Yo-Semite.”
Mr. Trump has pushed back against his critics by boasting that he aced a test to detect early signs of dementia.
Among other things, the test asks subjects to identify animals and recite back from memory a string of words, such as “person, woman, man, camera, TV.”
Mr. Trump challenged Mr. Biden to take the same test and predicted he would flunk it.
In a clip that aired Wednesday on “CBS This Morning,” Mr. Biden rejected Mr. Trump’s challenge.
“If he can’t tell the difference between an elephant and a lion, I don’t know what the hell he is talking about,” Mr. Biden said.
He said he is looking forward to the chance to display his mental dexterity when he faces off against Mr. Trump on the debate stage.
Mr. Bucholz said Mr. Biden is smart to quickly dismiss the attack and to let his campaign indirectly address it in television ads playing up his competence.
“The president is trying to do every flim-flam, shim-sham action to distract from the fact that he is down 12 points in some places,” Mr. Bucholz said. “It is a false flag being floated to national media by the president and his minions.”
⦁ David Sherfinski and Dave Boyer contributed to this report.
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