(WASHINGTON) — Mehmet Oz, the Republican candidate for Senate in Pennsylvania, on Tuesday tried to distance himself from an aide’s comment last week that appeared to mock the stroke suffered by Oz’s opponent, Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman.
“The campaign has been saying lots of things,” Oz told KDKA, a Pittsburgh radio station. “My position — and I can only speak to what I’m saying — is that John Fetterman should be allowed to recover fully and I will support his ability, as someone who’s gone through a difficult time, to get ready.”
Oz was responding to a question about a comment attributed to Rachel Tripp, his communications adviser, who was quoted saying that if Fetterman “had ever eaten a vegetable in his life, then maybe he wouldn’t have had a major stroke and wouldn’t be in the position of having to lie about it constantly.”
Tripp’s comment was first reported by Insider on Aug. 23.
Amid near-instant condemnation, including from pro-Fetterman doctors and Fetterman himself, Oz’s campaigni nitially doubled down, calling the comment “good health advice” from a former cardiothoracic surgeon.
Until Tuesday morning, Oz had yet to personally speak about the campaign’s comment.
A spokesperson did not respond to repeated requests from ABC News to speak to the candidate after a town hall Monday night outside Pittsburgh — even as Oz criticized Fetterman for dodging the press at campaign stops of his own.
The spokesperson, Brittany Yanick, and Tripp did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Tuesday.
The Pennsylvania Senate race took a heated — and personal — turn when Oz’s adviser was quoted derisively blaming Fetterman for his own stroke.
Tripp, the aide, had given a statement for the campaign, to Insider in response to Fetterman’s attacks on Oz as elitist and out of touch.
The Oz campaign comment drew immediate reaction on social media, including from Fetterman, who tweeted, “I know politics can be nasty, but even then, I could *never* imagine ridiculing someone for their health challenges.”
“I had a stroke. I survived it. I’m truly so grateful to still be here today,” he added.
Fetterman — who told a local outlet in 2018, when he was mayor of a small Pittsburgh suburb, that he had lost nearly 150 pounds by adopting a diet that included more vegetables — acknowledged in the days after the stroke in May that he “should have taken my health more seriously.”
But the tone of Tripp’s statement was deemed inappropriate by a group of pro-Fetterman physicians who earlier spoke out against Oz at an event organized by Fetterman’s campaign.
“No real doctor, or any decent human being, to be honest, would ever mock a stroke victim who is recovering from that stroke in the way that Dr. Oz is mocking John Fetterman,” Dr. Valerie Arkoosh, the Democratic chair of the board of commissioners in Montgomery County, said in a statement provided on Tuesday by a Fetterman spokeswoman.
The Oz campaign went on to tell ABC News in a statement late on Aug. 23: “Nice try. Dr. Oz has been urging people to eat more veggies for years. That’s not ridicule. It’s good health advice. We’re only trying to help.”
The salvo — in a race in a battleground state that could tip control of Congress — represented a departure from Oz’s other lines of attack since Fetterman’s stroke, which had involved largely dancing around it by jeering at Fetterman for his absence from the trail without referencing what sidelined him.
Oz struck an even more sympathetic tone immediately after Fetterman announced his stroke. He tweeted then: “I am thankful that you received care so quickly. My whole family is praying for your speedy recovery.”
“I think he just had it,” Stacy Garrity, the state treasurer and a co-chair of Oz’s campaign, told ABC News on Aug. 23. “I think he just got tired. He’s probably tired of hearing about veggies,” she said, referring to the Fetterman team’s repeated swipes over a video showing Oz shopping for vegetables to make crudités and criticizing Democrats for grocery prices.
The volley of statements threatened to overshadow Fetterman’s separate appearance on Aug. 23 afternoon in Pittsburgh to tout a key labor endorsement — only his second public campaign stop since his stroke. With many eyes still on his health, he spoke for roughly four and half minutes and exhibited patterns similar to those he showed at a rally in Erie earlier this month, speaking often in choppy sentences. (He told a newspaper last month that he was working with a speech therapist as he recovered.)
Amid now-routine jokes about the “crudités” video and Oz’s residential history outside of Pennsylvania, Fetterman also pledged to “stand with the union way of life” before exiting the venue without answering a group of reporters who flanked him as he walked.
Among those ignored questions was whether Fetterman would agree to debate Oz this fall, an issue Oz has hammered as Fetterman has remained largely mum about his plans to share a stage with his opponent.
“We’ve said we’re open to debating Oz,” Joe Calvello, a spokesman, said in response to a question that a reporter posed to Fetterman.
Oz’s campaign says he has agreed to five debates, including one on Sep. 6. Fetterman’s campaign says it refuses to set a schedule on Oz’s terms.
But according to a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette report, the campaign did not initially respond to an invitation emailed nearly a month ago to both campaigns by a politics editor at KDKA, a TV station in Pittsburgh planning the Sep. 6 debate.
Oz has accepted the invitation, the station’s news director told the Post-Gazette.
Asked by ABC News to respond to that report, a Fetterman spokesperson sent a statement from Rebecca Katz, a senior adviser to the campaign, who called Oz’s focus on debates “an obvious attempt to change the subject during yet another bad week for Dr. Oz.”
On Tuesday, Fetterman declined in a statement to take part in the debate, prompting a spokeswoman for Oz to call him a “liar” and a “coward.”
Fetterman did not commit to debating Oz this fall but did not rule it out, either.
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