With weeks to go before the election, Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor and Democratic Senate nominee, John Fetterman, is still struggling with the effects of a May stroke.
In his first in-person interview, which aired Tuesday night, Fetterman required the use of closed captioning.
The Democrat is “still suffering from auditory processing issues, which means he has a hard time understanding what he’s hearing,” NBC News reporter Dasha Burns said.
NBC News agreed to the use of closed captioning technology during the interview, where a screen transcribed Burns’ questions.
“I sometimes will hear things in a way that’s not perfectly clear. So I use captioning so I’m able to see what you’re saying on the captioning,” Fetterman said.
Fetterman “occasionally stuttered and had trouble finding words,” according to the report, responding to Burns’ oral questions after subsequently reading the captions on a computer screen. In the interview, Fetterman can clearly be seen behind the screen reading the questions as they come.
“Every now and then I’ll miss a word. Every now and then. Or sometimes I’ll maybe mush two words together. But as long as I have captioning, I’m able to understand exactly what’s being asked,” he said.
In the interview, Fetterman can be seen having difficulty attempting to pronounce the word “empathetic,” moving between “emphetic” and “empathetic” before finally landing on the latter. He then used that as an example of the side affects of the stroke.
Fetterman said he is still in the recovery process but that “I don’t think it’s going to have an impact. I feel like I’m gonna get better and better—every day. And by January, I’m going [to] be, you know, much better. And Dr. Oz is still going to be a fraud.”
Burns said that before the interview and without captioning, “it wasn’t clear he was understanding our conversation.”
After the interview aired, other journalists who interviewed Fetterman since his stroke said he didn’t appear to have any of the comprehension difficulties highlighted during Burns’ piece.
Addressing those claims on Today early Wednesday, Burns said it was “completely fair” that others had a different experience with Fetterman. “We can only report our own [experience],” Burns told Savannah Guthrie. “I will say that it’s important to note that according to the campaign itself, our team was the first to be in the room with Fetterman for an interview rather than via remote video conferencing. Myself, my producer, and our crew did find that small talk before that captioning was difficult because of those auditory processing issues I mentioned.”
Burns added that stroke experts say Fetterman’s symptoms would not indicate that he has any cognitive impairment or memory issues, and that he can fully recover.
When questioned why he would not supply NBC with medical records or make any of his doctors available for an interview, Fetterman replied: “I feel like we have been very transparent in a lot of different ways. When our doctor has already given a letter saying that I’m able to serve and to be running. And then I think there’s—you can’t be any more transparent than standing up on a stage with 3,000 people and having a speech without a teleprompter and just being—and putting everything and yourself out there like that. I think that’s as transparent as everyone in Pennsylvania can see.”
Concerns surrounding Fetterman’s health have run rampant in the lead-up to the November election, with some questioning whether his health and heart are up to the job.
Republicans are already using the footage to their advantage; Steve Guest, special adviser for communications for Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), called it a “disaster,” claiming “John Fetterman is not well.”
“No wonder Fetterman has refused to do interviews,” he tweeted. “And this is who Democrats want to be a Senator.”
Train Trump helps Stephen Miller tweeted that “if one was going to elect a new Senator with grave cognitive impediments to performing his duties one would likely want an individual who was in every other way exemplary. Not the crazy, radical, dresses like he’s 11, pro-murderer anti-cop marxist zealot deadbeat John Fetterman.”
Clay Travis of the conservative podcast The Clay Travis and Buck Sexton Show called the interview “insane,” adding, “imagine what media would be saying if a Republican was trying to pull this campaign off.”
Former Fox News contributor and Trump Treasury Department spokeswoman Monica Crowley labeled Fetterman “unfit to serve in the Senate,” criticizing him because he “couldn’t even make it through a basic, friendly interview with MSNBC: couldn’t hear, couldn’t understand.”
Dr. Oz’s team is yet to comment, however senior communications adviser Rachel Tripp told Insider in August: “If John Fetterman had ever eaten a vegetable in his life, then maybe he wouldn’t have had a major stroke and wouldn’t be in the position of having to lie about it constantly.”
When The Daily Beast reached out to Tripp at the time, she replied via email: “Nice try. Dr. Oz has been urging people to eat more veggies for years. That’s not ridiculous. It’s good health advice. We’re only trying to help.”
Speaking on The Last Word on Tuesday night, Fetterman criticized Dr. Oz for the comments, saying, “I can’t believe that having a doctor that is cheering on for me not to get better.”
Fetterman still leads in the polls.
The Democrat has used closed captioning technology in interviews before; it was cited in a piece earlier this month in The New Yorkerwhere he used Google Meet to conduct the interview.
“Because the stroke had made it difficult for him to process what he hears, the video chat has closed captioning technology that allowed him to read my questions in real time,” reporter Rebecca Traister wrote.
Fetterman has agreed to an Oct. 25 debate with his opponent, Republican Mehmet Oz, but under the condition that Fetterman have access to a closed captioning monitor so he can read the questions as they come in.
Political commentator Adam Jentleson said the interview was a “good moment for a gut check here.” He wrote in a tweet: “I’m biased but when I watch the clip I see a guy recovering and recovering overcoming a challenge. I wonder what voters will see.”
Political, public affairs, and communications strategist Jeff Timmer tweeted that it was a “bold but wise” strategy to have Fetterman doing interviews and “showing the accessibility tools he uses to process the spoken word. I commend him and his team for having the guts and balls to do this.”
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