NBC interview draws new scrutiny into Fetterman’s health

A recent NBC News interview raises new questions about the health of Pennsylvania Senate candidate John Fetterman as the campaign enters its home stretch amid his recovery from a stroke.

In the interview, which aired Tuesday, Fetterman discussed the effects of the stroke he suffered in May on his hearing processing. The interview showed Fetterman using closed captioning to help him understand dialogue, answering questions orally after reading them on a computer screen.

The segment, which highlighted some of Fetterman’s apparent struggles to speak out, came as the Democratic nominee prepares to take on Republican rival Mehmet Oz in a debate later this month.

“It highlights why, unfortunately, there are legitimate questions about whether or not he will deliver,” veteran Republican strategist Doug Heye said.

It was common knowledge that since his stroke, Fetterman had been using closed captioning when speaking to reporters. But Tuesday’s NBC interview provided viewers with an up-close look at the process. It also showed him that he sometimes had trouble formulating the correct word in his responses.

Further questions were raised by comments from NBC reporter who conducted the session, Dasha Burns, who said that by having a “little chat” with Fetterman before the interview without captioning, he was not not clear that he understood their conversation. She noted on NBC’s “Today” on Wednesday that stroke experts say that doesn’t mean Fetterman has cognitive impairment.

“It doesn’t mean his memory or cognitive state is impaired and he hasn’t fully recovered,” Burns said. “And with the captioning turned on, he was able to fully understand my questions throughout this 25 minute interview, which we will post later today.”

Still, his remarks sparked a flurry of responses online, with Republicans seizing the interview as allies rushed to defend the Democratic Senate nominee.

“I campaigned with @JohnFetterman often and had no problem making ‘small talk,'” Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) tweeted. “After a historic primary victory, he connects with PA voters because he understands their challenges and is ready to fight for them in Washington. He is going to be a great senator.

The Republican National Senate Committee (NRSC), by contrast, took aim at Fetterman on Wednesday.

“As a U.S. senator, daily conversations with a variety of people are a norm, and closed captioning won’t always be involved,” said NRSC spokeswoman Lizzie Litzow. “How can Pennsylvanians expect Fetterman to represent them to the fullest if he can’t even get through a short amount of ‘small talk’?”

Meanwhile, the Oz campaign suggested Fetterman wasn’t being transparent enough about the severity of his condition.

“John Fetterman has not been honest about two things: his support for the release of convicted street murderers and his health,” Oz communications director Brittany Yanick told The Hill in a statement. “The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorial board called out both candidates to release their medical records weeks ago and the Washington Post editorial board called out Fetterman for his lack of transparency. Pennsylvanians deserve to know the truth before they vote on Nov. 8, and John Fetterman needs to be honest with voters. Pennsylvanians deserve answers.

But Democrats were quick to call the interview a show of transparency and honesty.

“The word that comes to mind is honest,” TJ Rooney, former chairman of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, said in an interview. “The next nature of how he conducted himself is kind of true to who he was.”

A Democratic national agent said Fetterman “has probably had the most public stroke recovery process in a while.”

“I think voters are quite sympathetic and understand that,” the agent said.

Fetterman himself has repeatedly said that the attack will not affect his ability to serve. In the aftermath of the interview, he addressed some of the public reactions on Twitter.

“Recovering from a stroke in public is not easy,” Fetterman tweeted. “But in January I will be much better – and Dr Oz will always be an impostor.”

Perhaps in a sign of how much the controversial interview has inflamed its supporters, the Fetterman campaign announced late Wednesday that it had raised more than $1 million since Tuesday.

And Fetterman continues to make public appearances. On Wednesday, he participated in a live interview with the editorial board of Penn Live. His campaign also announced he would attend a rally in Johnstown, Pennsylvania on Friday and in Delaware County, Pennsylvania on Saturday.

Nor is Fetterman’s situation entirely unique. There are many examples of stroke survivors who have served in the Senate, including current senses Ben Ray Luján (DN.M.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), as well as former Senator Mark Kirk ( R-Ill.).

But some note that these people were already sitting senators when they suffered their strokes.

“They were in those roles,” Heye said. “Fetterman starts from this place, and it’s fundamentally different.”

The debate over Fetterman’s health hinges on the fact that recent polls have shown the race between him and Oz is getting closer. Over the summer, multiple polls — including one from Fox News — showed the Democrat with a double-digit lead. But the margins have narrowed significantly over the past two months as Fetterman has stepped up his public appearances and Oz has sought to pressure him about his health.

An Emerson College Polling-The Hill survey conducted last month showed Fetterman leading Oz by just 2 points. The RealClearPolitics polling average has Fetterman leading Oz by just 3.7 points.

The debate, which is set to be held Oct. 25 in Harrisburg and will include closed captions for Fetterman, comes as a test of the two candidates for completely different reasons.

“I think we overestimate the Senate debates. The Beasley-Budd debate wasn’t going to set anything on fire,” Heye said, referring to last week’s debate in the North Carolina Senate. “But this one is potentially for all marbles.”

For Fetterman, the debate will show how he handles a high-pressure crossfire situation.

“If Fetterman has a moment where he can’t find words, it will have more impact on voters than [any] juvenile press release,” Heye said.

But Oz, who has a background in medicine, will also have a fine line to walk. His campaign has been criticized in the past for appearing to mock Fetterman’s health.

“It’s also a challenge for Oz,” said Keith Naughton, a GOP strategist. “How does Oz handle this without looking like he’s picking on someone?” Oz has to resist the urge to engage in trolling and just some kind of behavior that people would think is off limits.

And given how close the race is, that could impact the final days of the campaign.

“This one will be watched in a very different way than we’ve seen before and with bigger numbers than we’ve seen before,” Naughton continued. “This will be monitored nationally.”

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