Politics

Biden's low-profile doctor has been thrust into the spotlight after the president's debate disaster

WASHINGTON — (AP) — As the physician to President Joe Biden, Dr. Kevin O'Connor is well-known around the White House. The stocky former Army surgeon is always close by his number one patient, ready to provide care or a consult as needed though few outside the building would know who he is.

But Biden's politically crippling debate performance changed all that. Ensuing and uncomfortable questions about the 81-year-old Democratic president's mental and physical capacity to serve a second four-year term have thrust O'Connor into the spotlight.

In February, just four months before the disastrous debate, O'Connor had overseen Biden's most recent physical exam and wrote in a public memo that the president "continues to be fit for duty and fully executes all of his responsibilities without any exemptions or accommodations." The White House said Tuesday that the doctor's assessment still stands.

But some Republican lawmakers now want the man Biden simply calls “doc” to come to Capitol Hill to answer their questions about the president's health and medical care. There are also questions about why he hasn't pushed his patient — the president — to undergo cognitive testing.

And on Monday, after White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre cited privacy for refusing to discuss why a neurologist who has conducted research into Parkinson's disease had visited the complex eight times between July 2023 and this past March, it was O'Connor who later stepped in to clear things up.

He released a letter late Monday explaining that the doctor, Kevin Cannard, is a neurologist who evaluated Biden during each of the three physical exams he's had since taking office in 2021. O'Connor said Cannard also treats others at the White House, explaining his occasional presence there.

O'Connor and Biden have a close relationship dating back over a decade.

After more than two decades in the Army, O'Connor joined the White House Medical Unit at the invitation of then-President George W. Bush. He was expecting to finish his three-year tour by serving six months with the new vice president — Biden — after the Obama administration began in 2009.

“That didn't work out and, so, I ended up doing the whole eight years with him,” O'Connor joked in an interview last year with the New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine about his role as the president's chief physician.

He retired after Obama and Biden left office, but remained with Biden as his personal physician. Biden brought O'Connor back to the White House when he became president in 2021.

“I retired and had a plan, and here I am again,” said O'Connor, who grew up in New Jersey.

The doctor was a central figure and sounding board for the Biden family when the then-vice president's eldest son Beau was dying of brain cancer. According to "Promise Me Dad," Biden's memoir of that period in his life, O'Connor counseled Beau Biden on his best course of treatment and offered him a sober assessment of his prognosis. O'Connor was also in the operating room to help calm Beau Biden as he underwent a craniotomy, Biden wrote. Beau Biden died in May 2015.

Affable and stoutly built, O’Connor, 58, married and a father of three daughters, is a jovial presence in Biden’s inner circle, often mixing medical advice with jokes. He regularly travels with Biden, the standard for all presidents, and is often seen carrying heavy medical bags and riding in the spare limousine in the president's motorcade.

Andrew Bates, a White House deputy press secretary, said O'Connor, who is a doctor of osteopathic medicine, is someone whose “unique expertise is sought across the medical community, in which he is respected for his candor, attention to detail and work ethic.”

Though he operates largely in the background, some House Republicans want to use the political back and forth over Biden's debate performance to shine a brighter light on the doctor.

Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., chairman of the House Oversight Committee, sent a letter to O'Connor requesting that he sit for a transcribed interview with the committee to discuss his medical assessment of the president.

“Americans question President Biden’s ability to lead the country and the Committee on Oversight and Accountability is investigating circumstances surrounding your assessment in February of this year that ‘President Biden is a healthy, active, robust 81-year-old-male, who remains fit to successfully execute the duties of the Presidency...’,” Comer wrote.

Comer also requested that O’Conner turn over documents related to his alleged ties to Biden family businesses. Comer alleges that O’Connor previously worked closely with James Biden, the president’s brother, at a company that operated rural hospitals and says that connection has clouded his medical judgment of Biden’s cognitive state.

White House spokesperson Ian Sams wrote Tuesday on social media that Comer's request is “absolutely ridiculous and insulting.”

Before joining the White House Medical Unit in the Bush administration, O’Connor was the command surgeon for the Army’s “Delta Force,” the secretive special operations unit that later killed Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. His tours of duty included stints with the 82nd Airborne and 75th Ranger Regiment, and he was among the first troops to enter Iraq and Afghanistan during U.S. military operations in both countries.

Biden wrote in his memoir that O'Connor served in “serious combat” in counterterrorism operations after the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the U.S.

In a speech to the American College of Osteopathic Family Physicians, O'Connor credited his training in osteopathic manipulation with getting him the Delta Force job after he had treated some operators, and for moving to the White House, after a colleague recruited him to treat Bush.

He teaches part time at George Washington University's medical school.

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AP White House Correspondent Zeke Miller and Associated Press writer Farnoush Amiri in Washington and AP Researcher Rhonda Shafner in New York contributed to this report.

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