A recent NBC News interview is raising fresh questions about Pennsylvania Senate candidate John Fetterman’s health as the campaign enters its final stretch amid his recovery from a stroke.
In the interview, which aired on Tuesday, Fetterman discussed the effects of the stroke he suffered in May on his auditory 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 the apparent difficulty Fetterman has in articulating himself, came as the Democratic candidate 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’ll be up to the job,” said veteran Republican strategist Doug Heye.
It was common knowledge that since his stroke Fetterman had been using closed captioning when talking with reporters. But the NBC interview on Tuesday provided viewers an up-close look at the process. It also showed him struggling at times to formulate the correct word in his answers.
Sparking further questions were comments made by the NBC reporter who conducted the sit-down, Dasha Burns, who said that while making “small talk” with Fetterman before the interview without captioning it wasn’t clear he was understanding their conversation. She noted Wednesday on NBC’s “Today” that stroke experts say this does not mean Fetterman has cognitive impairment.
“Doesn’t mean his memory or his cognitive condition is impaired and he didn’t fully recover from this,” Burns said. “And once the closed captioning was on, he was able to fully understand my questions throughout that 25-minute interview, which we will publish later today.”
Still, her remarks sparked a flurry of responses online, with Republicans seizing on the interview as allies rushed to defend the Democratic Senate candidate.
“I’ve frequently campaigned with @JohnFetterman and had no problem making ‘small talk,’” tweeted Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.). “After a historic primary win, he’s connecting with PA voters because he understands their challenges and is ready to fight for them in Washington. He’s going to be a great senator.”
The National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), on the other hand, took aim at Fetterman Wednesday.
“As a U.S. Senator, daily conversations with a variety of people are a standard, and closed captioning won’t always be involved,” said Lizzie Litzow, an NRSC spokesperson. “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 that Fetterman was not being transparent enough about the seriousness of his health.
“John Fetterman has failed to be honest about two things: his support for releasing convicted murderers back on the streets and his health,” Oz’s communications director, Brittany Yanick, told The Hill in a statement. “The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Editorial Board called on 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 cast a vote on November 8th and John Fetterman needs to be honest with voters. Pennsylvanians deserve answers.”
But Democrats have been quick to label the interview as a show of transparency and honesty.
“The word that keeps coming into my head is honest,” said T.J. Rooney, the former chairman of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, said in an interview. “The forthcoming nature of how he conducted himself is kind of true to who he’s been.”
One national Democratic operative said Fetterman “has probably had the most public stroke recovery process in a while.”
“I think voters are pretty sympathetic and understand it,” the operative said.
Fetterman himself has repeatedly said the stroke will not impact 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 isn’t easy,” Fetterman tweeted. “But in January, I’m going to be much better — and Dr. Oz will still be a fraud.”
In perhaps a sign of the degree to which the controversial interview fired up his supporters, the Fetterman campaign announced Wednesday night that it had raised over $1 million since Tuesday.
And Fetterman is continuing to do public appearances. On Wednesday, he took part in a livestreamed interview with Penn Live’s editorial board. His campaign also announced that he will take part in a rally in Johnstown, Pa., on Friday and in Delaware County, Pa., on Saturday.
Fetterman’s situation is also not entirely unique. There are multiple examples of stroke survivors who have served in the Senate, including current Sens. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), as well as former Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.).
But some note that those individuals were already sitting senators when they suffered their strokes.
“They were in those roles,” Heye said. “Fetterman is starting from this place, and that’s fundamentally different.”
Underpinning the debate over Fetterman’s health is the fact that recent polls have shown the race between him and Oz tightening. Over the summer, multiple polls — including one from Fox News — showed the Democrat with a double-digit lead. But the margins have narrowed considerably over the past couple months, as Fetterman has stepped up his public appearances and Oz has sought to pressure him over his health.
An Emerson College Polling-The Hill survey taken last month showed Fetterman leading Oz by only 2 points. The RealClearPolitics polling average has Fetterman leading Oz by just 3.7 points.
The debate, which is slated to be held on Oct. 25 in Harrisburg and will include closed captioning for Fetterman, stands to be a test for the two candidates for completely different reasons.
“I think we overrate Senate debates. The Beasley-Budd debate was not going to set anything on fire,” Heye said, referring to last week’s North Carolina Senate debate. “But this one potentially is for all the marbles.”
For Fetterman, the debate will show how he handles a high-pressure crossfire situation.
“If Fetterman has a moment where he’s not coming up with words, that 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 faced criticism 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 it without looking like he’s picking on somebody? Oz has to resist the urge to engage in trolling and just sort of behavior that people would think was out of bounds.”
And given how close the race is, it 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 watched nationally.”