What Doctors Think Is Happening to Mitch McConnell

Mitch McConnell grips a podium and seems unable to move as other people look on with concern.
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On Wednesday, Sen. Mitch McConnell froze up during a routine public event in his home state of Kentucky. As a reporter asked the 81-year-old his thoughts on running for reelection in 2026, McConnell stood stock-still, unblinking and seemingly unable to answer, while holding tightly to his lectern. An aide escorted the senator away and he did not return to the event. It was the second time something like this has happened to him in public in the past several weeks.

But the next day, the U.S. Capitol doctor said the senator was cleared to continue with his work as planned. The doctor’s statement was light on details about what might have happened but stated: “Occasional lightheadedness is not uncommon in concussion recovery and can also be expected as a result of dehydration.”

“The statement is perfectly accurate and could still be happening several months later,” said Lee Schwamm, a neurologist and stroke specialist at Yale School of Medicine. “However, they do not go on to state that they believe medically that this is the cause of his symptoms witnessed on camera, nor do I.”

McConnell’s health has been in the spotlight for a while now. In 2020, his hands and mouth area appeared deeply bruised, but he remained adamant that nothing was wrong and provided no explanation. Then in March 2023, McConnell suffered a fall at a D.C. hotel. He hit his head and fractured a rib, his office confirming he suffered a concussion. The incident sidelined him for six weeks before he was able to return to the Senate. (It’s widely speculated this is not the only fall McConnell has had over the past year.)

Then, in July, McConnell abruptly froze midsentence while answering a reporter’s question during a weekly news conference. He had to be escorted away but did come back shortly after to finish the presser.

Throughout all of these incidents, McConnell’s office has remained incredibly tight-lipped about the state of his health. But medical professionals who spoke to Slate speculated on what could be causing the senator’s behavior and what they thought of the U.S. Capitol doctor’s explanation for it.

Doctors rarely get the chance to see a patient’s spells on camera, and, in McConnell’s case, two of his freeze-up moments were caught on tape. Schwamm observed that McConnell’s gaze deviated to the right, and he was able to grip his lectern without falling over or losing consciousness but was also unable to speak. “Those are really strongly suggestive of a partial seizure.”

Especially when considering McConnell’s first public spell in the Capitol, because he was able to come back a few minutes later to continue on as normal, Schwamm said, “there’s near complete recovery, [which] also strongly suggests that this is a partial seizure.” But McConnell’s office has not said anything about a seizure, attributing both incidents to lightheadedness.

“The videos that I’ve seen look like he’s having focal seizures,” said Peyman Golshani, professor of neurology at University of California Los Angeles. He noted the same characteristics as Schwamm: eyes deviating to one side and speech arrest, then seemingly going back to  normal within 20 to 30 seconds. “I know people are saying he’s just lightheaded. But it doesn’t look like that to me,” said Golshani.

Because McConnell suffered a concussion earlier this year, Golshani said, it’s possible he’s having post-traumatic seizures following head trauma, especially if there’s any kind of bruising on the brain or blood on the surface of the brain. But both Golshani and Schwamm stressed that it’s impossible to definitively say what may be happening to McConnell and why, since they are not on his treatment team and haven’t viewed his medical records.

Doctors who spoke to other news outlets also agreed that McConnell’s behavior was indicative of a seizure and felt attributing it to “lightheadedness” was flat-out wrong. “If I gave that tape to a medical student and that was his explanation, I’d fail him,” Orrin Devinsky, a neurology professor at New York University, told the New York Times.

Schwamm warned that just because someone experiences a seizure, it doesn’t instantly make them unfit for office. “Many people, unfortunately, view neurological illnesses as a sign of frailty,” said Schwamm. “The Senate race with Sen. Fetterman was an example of that where many people felt he was unfit to serve because he’d had a stroke.” The Pennsylvania senator’s stroke raised doubts about his ability to do his job, despite his doctors repeatedly saying he is capable of taking on a full workload. He ultimately prevailed, winning one of the most contentious Senate races in the country, and is currently serving in Congress.

As for McConnell, it’s unclear whether or not he’s receiving treatment for his freezing spells. “It’s quite possible that he’s already on medication and it’s just being adjusted and trying to find that sweet spot of controlling his seizures without impairing his cognitive abilities,” Schwamm said.

Schwamm’s biggest concern was McConnell’s office potentially minimizing the seriousness of his condition. “It’s nothing to hide from, and magical thinking—hoping a spell like that just isn’t there, it’s just dehydration, and it will go away—may prevent some patients from seeking medical attention if they have similar spells,” he said.