NEW YORK — On a frigid December afternoon, Dr. Harold Bornstein was talking about his most famous patient, President-elect Donald Trump.
He hadn’t spoken with Trump since the election, and had no idea whether he would be asked to move his medical practice to Washington. But he also didn’t seem particularly worried about what the stress of the job might mean for the nation’s oldest president — a distinction he hadn’t considered until this reporter pointed it out.
“It never occurred to me that he was the oldest president, not for a second,” Bornstein, 69, said in his Upper East Side office of the 70-year-old Trump. He said that “there’s nothing to share” on a regular basis about a president’s health. “Ronald Reagan had pre-senile dementia. I mean, seriously, did they share that one with you, or did Nancy just cover it up?”
“If something happens to him, then it happens to him,” Bornstein said. “It’s like all the rest of us, no? That’s why we have a vice president and a speaker of the House and a whole line of people. They can just keep dying.”
If Bornstein wasn’t interested much in discussing Trump, there was plenty else that did enthuse him. In a three-hour interview with STAT, his first since the election, Bornstein seemed more interested in talking about about how insurance companies are too powerful, how walk-in clinics poorly serve patients, and how doctors aren’t held in the same esteem as they used to be.
When Bornstein first came to the attention of the world last year, he was presented as a caricature befitting his unconventional patient of over 35 years. Pictures of him with wild hair and a seemingly goofy demeanor rocketed around the internet, along with a letter that attested Trump would be the healthiest man ever elected president.
Throughout the campaign, Bornstein attempted to avoid the media spotlight — CNN once cornered him on a bench, but when his wife, Melissa, arrived, she shut down the interview, physically pulling him through the door to his office.
His friend Wayne Harley Brachman, the pastry chef at an upscale Manhattan steakhouse who used to cohost a Food Network show, thought about offering PR advice (“you gotta take it over, and figure out what you want to say, and smile”) but he never did.
Bornstein said that, in the wake of the election, he’s been harassed on the street. One woman, upon recognizing him, said, “You’re Donald Trump’s doctor. I hope he dies!” Melissa said she has stopped answering her phone if she doesn’t recognize the number — “I’ve gotten so many harassing phone calls.”
“The take on this has not been what’s in between his ears,” Melissa later said about her husband. “It’s been what his hair looks like and what he looks like.”
The doctor initially rebuffed STAT’s requests for an interview. “Please stop this nonsense!!!” Bornstein wrote in an email in January 2016. But after STAT spoke with two of Bornstein’s sons, Melissa arranged for a sit-down in his office.
But five days after STAT’s visit to his office, in phone calls and text messages, Bornstein said he was angry and did not want the article or any photographs of him to be published.
“I happen to have known the Sulzbergers for 50 years,” Bornstein said in the second conversation, referring to the family that helms the New York Times. “I’m going to make sure you don’t ever work again if you do this.”
Doctor to the Trumps
Bornstein has cared for other members of Trump’s family, including his sons Donald Jr. and Eric, as well as his daughter Tiffany, from Trump’s second marriage, the physician said.
Bornstein has also treated Trump’s first wife, Ivana, according to a letter from Trump hanging in Bornstein’s office. The signed letter, dated Oct. 12, 2001, reads: “It is rare to almost unheard of for a doctor to make house calls anymore, so I wanted to tell you how very much I appreciated your visits to Ivana the other week – – you are terrific!” Next to the letter is a signed photograph of Ivana. “You are THE BEST!” is written in red ink.
In the interview, Bornstein said that he didn’t know he would be allowed to continue caring for the president, and that he thought a military doctor would need to care for Trump in the White House.
Most physicians to presidents have been military officers, but some presidents have chosen non-uniformed doctors.
John F. Kennedy, for instance, appointed to the role Dr. Janet Travell Powell, who had been a personal physician of his when he was a senator. And Ronald Reagan chose Dr. Daniel Ruge, a civilian doctor recommended by his father-in-law, as one of his physicians as president.
Bornstein, like Trump, would be an unconventional pick.
The back of his business cards are written in Italian, with the phrase “dottore molto famoso,” or “very famous doctor,” below his name. (For 10 years, he took private Italian lessons from women he found through Craigslist postings, paying them about $60 an hour for weekly sessions, he said.) A photograph of his psychoanalyst hangs in his office. As this reporter left his office, Bornstein pointed out what appeared to be a small, naked doll sitting on the ground — “here’s a naked doorstop.”
“He loves being this sort of creative, out of the box sort of guy nobody really understands, you know?” said his son Jeremee Bornstein, a sophomore biomedical engineering student at Tufts University.
By all accounts, Bornstein is a caring and dedicated doctor. He said that “there’s no barrier where the patients end and our personal lives begin.” Trump is no exception — Bornstein and his wife once dined at Trump’s Florida home, the doctor said.
A couple of times a year, Bornstein does “reverse house calls” — patients come to his house in Scarsdale to see him. During the interview with STAT, Melissa was putting stamps on a package — a glove that a patient had left at the office the day before. She said that one patient often brings her pea soup; another, coffee.
On a table in the waiting room, next to a case of Cialis brochures, sit a few flyers encouraging patients who feel grateful for Bornstein’s services to donate to his alma mater, Tufts University School of Medicine. One patient gave $25,000 in Bornstein’s honor.
Medicine runs in the family
Bornstein wanted to be a doctor for as long as he can remember. A photograph in his office depicts him as a smiling young boy holding a stethoscope to what appeared to be a teddy bear. In high school, he played in a band called “Doc Bornstein and the Interns.”
They played at high school dances, weddings, and private parties, the band members said. Brachman said he spent so much time at Bornstein’s house — rehearsing with the band, hanging out in a backyard clubhouse, or reenacting professional wrestling matches — that Bornstein’s mother joked he grew up there.
Bornstein was following in the footsteps of his father, Jacob, a doctor who practiced in the same Manhattan office and came from humble beginnings. Jacob grew up in a Yiddish-speaking family in Chelsea, Mass., and attended Harvard in the 1930s and ’40s as an undergraduate and for medical school, when universities had quotas for Jewish students. Melissa said that Jacob didn’t live in the dorms, but rather at home with his mother. There’s a picture of Jacob in the office from his Harvard days — “he doesn’t look like a Jewish man,” Melissa said, noting Jacob’s round glasses.
When Jacob bought the 78th Street office, its address was originally on Park Avenue. But Jacob opened up the fire door on 78th street and turned that into the main entrance, embarrassed to have an address on Park, the Bornsteins said.
“I guess he felt he never belonged here,” Bornstein said.
Regardless, Jacob found success — his patients included actress Anne Bancroft (when he met her, she was a waitress, Bornstein said), and of course Donald Trump. Bornstein thinks that one of Jacob’s patients, an electrical engineer, introduced Trump to Jacob.
Bornstein the younger started caring for Trump in 1980, giving the President-elect a checkup as recently as September.
When asked what responsibility the president’s doctor has to share information about the president’s health with the public, Bornstein said, “Well, I’m fortunate there’s nothing seriously wrong with him. He’s a few pounds overweight, which everybody can see, and that’s it. I’ve never been able to find anything wrong with him.”
Bornstein said that Trump isn’t “an old man the way my grandfather was an old man;” meanwhile, of Clinton, he said: “She’s an old lady. She’s an old lady. It’s funny, isn’t it?”
He said that he ran into Dr. Lisa Bardack, Clinton’s physician, during the course of the campaign, and that he gave her a Trump pin.
Prior to last year, Bornstein said, the fact that Trump is his patient was not well-known. Other patients may have seen the photo of Bornstein and Trump that hangs in the waiting room, and one of his former bandmates recalled knowing about his friend’s celebrity patient, but it was never an issue.
Bornstein said he’s only asked the man for one thing — a volunteer position for his son Jeremee with the campaign last summer.
Jeremee worked behind the scenes, starting off with what he described as “grunt work,” like answering the mail, and eventually moving up to working with the campaign’s voter data.
“What a great experience, for an 18-year-old to go to Trump Tower in a presidential year, with this character, of all people,” Bornstein said.
‘Everybody got punished’ by Obamacare
Jeremee, meanwhile, said that politics isn’t for him — he might go into medicine, but he doesn’t know yet.
“I’m going to have to make a lot of sacrifices to do that,” Jeremee said, citing what he sees as high medical school loans and the difficulty of earning a living afterward.
He supported Trump because he wants to get rid of Obamacare, which he, like his father, sees as giving too much power to the insurance companies. Jeremee commended his father’s cleverness in saving money even as the practice of medicine becomes more expensive.
For example, when the diagnosis and billing codes that doctors are supposed to use on health insurance claims forms changed, Bornstein, instead of upgrading his computer system, came up with a different solution. He put Scotch tape over box 21 and part of box 24 on the form. After the form goes to the printer, he peels off the tape and writes in the new codes by hand.
“This is genius. He maybe pays 50 cents for Scotch tape rather than thousands of dollars for a new computer system,” Jeremee said.
Obamacare hurts patients too, Bornstein said — “Everybody got punished: the rates went up, the services went down, the deductibles went way up” — and he spoke of a better age, when health insurance was tied to employment and you got what you worked for.
“Trump was elected, really, by people that are used to paying, the center of the country,” Bornstein said. “The center of this country is the old Protestant ethic. You work, you get paid.”
At the same time, Bornstein knows that free health care has a huge appeal. For an undergraduate government paper, he spoke with residents of South Boston about what would make them vote Republican in a Democratic state. Their answer was free health care.
As for Bornstein, regardless of how he’s getting paid, he’s still taking care of patients after hours. After three hours with a reporter in his office, Bornstein got a call from his house — his great-aunt, who is also a patient of his, was headed to the emergency room across the street from his office. He and his wife put on their matching white doctors coats and headed to the hospital, to see how she was doing and make sure she got the best possible care.