Someone wants the world to believe that the real reason US President Donald Trump briefly grabbed UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s hand during her visit to the White House last week is because he is has a phobia of walking down stairs.
Needless to say, you should treat this rumour with caution: There is almost zero verified evidence that Donald Trump is so afraid of stairs he must grasp the hand of another adult to climb them.
Nonetheless, the mere existence of the story — reported in The Times of London, the Washington Post, the Daily Mail, and The Mirror — illustrates the way Trump’s real idiosyncrasies give birth to sketchy memes that take on a life of their own: Trump does claim to be a germaphobe, he does remain obsessed with an insult published in Spy magazine over 31 years ago that called him “a short-fingered vulgarian,” and he is such a homebody that he flew his private jet home to New York most nights on the campaign trail rather than stay over locally.
So it feels plausible that he might have a quirk about steps and stairs, because his other quirks are real.
But that doesn’t mean Trump cannot climb stairs. In fact, he had to climb a whole bunch of stairs without a handrail in order to be inaugurated:
There are hundreds of photos online of Trump happily climbing up and down steps.
So where did this #fakenews come from?
January 23: The Washington Post reported that the location of spokesperson Kellyanne Conway’s office, up a flight of stairs from the Oval Office, may signify that her stock with the president is falling (emphasis added):
“One [source] suggested that Conway’s office on the second floor of the West Wing, as opposed to one closer to the Oval Office, was a sign of her diminished standing. Though Conway took over the workspace previously occupied by Valerie Jarrett, who had been Obama’s closest adviser, the confidant dismissively predicted that Trump would rarely climb a flight of stairs.”
The story did not draw any further conclusions about why Trump might not climb stairs. (Maybe he is too busy to leave the Oval Office? Maybe his staff comes to him and not the other way around?)
January 28: The story got real legs when the Mail reported that a “senior source” said Trump didn’t like stairs:
“The source said: ‘He hates heights where you can see the ground or sharp inclines even more than germs. He particularly dislikes staircases and his biggest nightmare of all is a dirty stair rail.'”
The Mail does not say where the “senior source” is located or how they might know such information. However, they weren’t the only outlet to report this.
January 29: The Times then weighed in with this:
“Downing Street officials claimed the president’s phobia of stairs and slopes led him to grab the prime minister’s hand as they walked down a ramp at the White House.”
The Times’ report is weird. It consists of only that sentence, staged as a bullet-point inside a story about something completely different — a supposed argument between Trump and Prince Charles. However, the story was apparently briefed by May’s spokespeople to journalists travelling with her to the US. It is not clear how “Downing Street officials” would know about Trump’s phobia though, given that until May’s Washington visit there were famously few connections between May’s people and Trump’s.
Later that same day: The Mirror copied the Mail’s story, using the same quote from the “senior source” but weirdly attributing it instead to “a White House insider.”
So, we can ignore The Mirror.
Still, three separate news organisations claiming three separate original reports all have some version of the “Trump is afraid of stairs” story (bathmophobia). So someone out there really, really wants you to believe this. They are just not willing to put their name on it.
Now look at the video itself, and ask yourself whether it shows a man who suddenly takes fright at a gentle incline:
Unfortunately, the exact moment that Trump first grabs May’s hand is obscured by a pillar. But their movement is fluid and natural, and it simply looks like Trump has offered a hand as they walk down a small slope. The moment only lasts a couple of seconds.
Here is a theory: When you’re a world leader there is absolutely one thing you cannot do: Fall over when the cameras are rolling. President Ford fell over. PM Margaret Thatcher fell over. President Reagan once slipped on the steps of Air Force One. And of course Hillary Clinton fell over while suffering from pneumonia, and it hurt her candidacy. When the most powerful people in the world fail to negotiate a short walkway it can redefine their image for years to come.
So perhaps it is not entirely surprising that one might help the other down a slope.
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