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Is there a double standard on age between Trump and Biden?

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

On June 14, Donald Trump will turn 78 years old. Joe Biden turned 81 in November. Whether they like it or not, age, mental acuity and physical fitness are issues dominating the 2024 presidential election cycle. Though the two men were born fewer than four years apart, voters have consistently expressed more concern about Biden's age than Trump's. So we've invited NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith and NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik to come explain why. Welcome, you two.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Thank you.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: All right. Tam, I'm going to throw the first few questions your way. I mean, we're here. We're talking about age again because of what special counsel Robert Hur wrote in his report investigating President Biden and his retention of classified documents. Open us up with the question of, do voters care about Biden's age? Like, how much of an issue is this?

KEITH: Voters bring it up to us unprompted all the time, and there's data to back it up. There's a January poll from NBC News that found three quarters of those surveyed had major or moderate concerns about President Biden's mental and physical fitness for a second term. That same poll found it was more like 50% of those surveyed who had the same concerns about Trump. If you look at the partisan breakdown, though, it's very interesting. Republicans have no concerns about Trump. They feel very positive about him. Take Delbert Leasure (ph), who my colleague Danielle Kurtzleben interviewed in South Carolina.

DELBERT LEASURE: I mean, he'll do a rally here for an hour and a half, two hours, 2 1/2 hours, whatever it is. I mean, I'm thinking he can run a marathon.

KEITH: But on the Democratic side, voters have - I guess you'd call it a far more realistic picture of Biden. James Parker (ph) was interviewed by my colleague Ashley Lopez. He was in New Hampshire, went out of his way to write in President Biden on the New Hampshire ballot. And yet this is what he had to say about the president.

JAMES PARKER: I'd rather see Biden in the office than Trump. But Biden's getting a little old, too old to be, you know, functioning properly, in my opinion.

KEITH: About half of Democratic voters in that NBC survey said that they had concerns about Biden's age.

KELLY: Tam, bring in your personal experience. You have reported on, you've tracked both these men - what? - for the entire Trump presidency. And now day in, day out the last three years, you've covered President Biden. What has been your experience?

KEITH: President Biden does have an increasingly stiff gait. He's now taking the short stairs into Air Force One. He's had a couple of notable physical spills, and there are the recurring issues of saying the wrong names of world leaders, for instance. But I also traveled with him to Israel on a 31-hour trip shortly after the Hamas attacks. He came back on Air Force One well over 20 hours into the trip and took questions at length and in great detail about the situation in the Middle East. He was energized about a call he had just completed with Egypt's president.

KELLY: And then what about Trump?

KEITH: You know, he hasn't had any notable public tumbles, but during his presidency, he had moments where he looked like he was having some difficulty going down ramps. Or another time, he grabbed a water glass with two hands. And, of course, his speeches ramble in an epic fashion. He speaks in the shorthand of conspiracy theories. He also mixes up names.

KELLY: Is Biden being held to a different standard than Trump when it comes to age?

KEITH: What I will say is that the American people these days see a lot more of President Biden than they do a former President Trump because President Biden is president. Every time he travels, goes up and down the stairs, walks with that stiff gait to Marine One, there's video. Every time he gives a speech, it's televised. And although it may not feel like it, Americans simply are not consuming as much Trump content as they used to because he's a former president. Of course, this past weekend he held a rally where he said that he would tell Russia to go ahead and attack a NATO ally if they didn't invest enough in their own defense. And that really overshadowed Biden's bad news cycle.

KELLY: Let me turn the different standard question to you, David. Does the media apply a double standard when it comes to talking about Biden and Trump and their age?

FOLKENFLIK: I think it is fair in the question, when you have somebody in his 80s as president, to say, is this person rightfully fit to preside over government? Trump gets essentially a pass. I mean, for the last almost nine years since he made clear he was running for president back in 2015, he was known for saying outrageous things and sometimes things that were not only outrageous but just untethered from reality. And people didn't pigeonhole that as senile. I do think there's a way in which Biden has been a gaffe machine. When he ran for office - and I remember this - in 1988 for the first time for president, you know, it was as though his running mate was somebody named gaffe. Biden, gaffe - they were together. Now it's seen as an act of senility, in a sense, of a part of the sort of overwhelmingly verbose nature of who he is. And yet I do think it's legitimate for reporters to focus on it. I just think not necessarily to the detriment of all the other ways in which these two former presidents' records can be compared.

KELLY: Speak for a moment, David, to media on the conservative side of the spectrum. Fox News - how do they play into this narrative that Trump is fine, Biden is too old to be president?

FOLKENFLIK: They're not just playing into it. They're writing that narrative, and they're doing it on an almost nightly or hourly basis. Certainly, Biden has his defenders, but I think what Fox has done is trying to play defense for Trump and for the controversy, particularly the legal perils that he faces as a result of his own actions, whether or not they proved to be criminal, by going on the offense against Biden and doing it on this effort. You see time and again the question raised of Biden's fitness, his senility, his infirmity and the idea that this is a constant question. Perhaps the perfect encapsulation of that was a moment last November where Lucas Tomlinson, a Fox News correspondent who was traveling with Biden in Martha's Vineyard, said effectively, Biden can't escape questions about his age. And then you heard Biden being confronted by a question.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LUCAS TOMLINSON: Mr. President, are you too old to be running for reelection?

FOLKENFLIK: Not disclosing that he, Lucas Tomlinson of Fox News, had been the person to pose the question. So Fox was essentially saying, this is an inescapable question for the president because we keep posing it to him. But we're not going to tell you we're the ones doing that.

KELLY: Let's give Trump and Biden the last word here. Tam, how do - when they get asked about this - we've heard a little bit of how Biden responds. But he also likes - he likes to joke about his age, right? He's trying to make light of it.

KEITH: Yeah, he absolutely makes jokes about it on a regular basis, in a way to try to disarm the issue. And when he gets serious about it, he simply says, watch me. Look at what I've done. Look at what I'm doing every day. Would I be able to do this if I wasn't OK?

KELLY: And then Trump - he gets asked about this less, but how does he handle it?

KEITH: You know, it's interesting. There has been a lot of focus on his mental state by his rival Nikki Haley, who is still running in the Republican primary. And so President Trump, at a at a rally I recently covered, actually boasted about a cognitive test.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: I took a cognitive test my doctor gave me. I said, give me a cognitive test just so we can - you know, because you know what the standards were. And I aced it. I also took one when I was in...

(APPLAUSE)

TRUMP: But I also took one when I was in the White House. No, I'll let you know when I go bad. I really think...

KEITH: This is far from the first time Trump has boasted about his health like this, and I think it is safe to say that we are going to continue having versions of this conversation all the way through November.

KELLY: That is NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith and NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik. Thanks, you two.

KEITH: You're welcome.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet.

(SOUNDBITE OF MASEGO SONG, "YOU NEVER VISIT ME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.
David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.