WASHINGTON – Wonder about the health of a president capable of scarfing two Big Macs, two Filet-o-Fish sandwiches and a chocolate shake in a single sitting?
Or who sniffs loudly as if to get more air as he speaks?
Or at times seems to slur his words?
Americans may get answers to those questions next year, the White House announced on Thursday, when President Donald Trump gets a physical exam at Walter Reed Army Hospital.
Press secretary Sarah Sanders, who had avoided questions on the topic for a week, addressed the matter at the end of her daily briefing following a host of stories about Trump’s garbled pronunciations on Wednesday as he read a statement off a teleprompter.
“Pretty ridiculous questions,” she said. “The president’s throat was dry, nothing more than that.”
At age 70 when inaugurated, Trump was the oldest man to began a first term as president (he turned 71 in June). Among recent commanders-in-chief, he is also the one whose physical well-being is least known to the public.
When she was first asked about Trump’s health a week ago, following an earlier episode of slurred speech, the 35-year-old Sanders declared Trump to be in better shape than she was.
“I do know that I spent 12 days on the road with him in Asia, and despite the fact that he’s a little bit older than me, he had twice the energy that I do,” she said. “So I think he’s in pretty good health.”
Sanders, though, is not a physician, and the only statements available to the public about Trump’s health from a medical doctor were offered by Harold Bornstein, a New York City gastroenterologist. In a four-paragraph note dated Dec. 4, 2015, he described Trump in terms that seemed suspiciously similar to how Trump might describe himself.
He finished with the declaration: “If elected, Mr. Trump, I can state unequivocally, will be the healthiest individual every elected to the presidency” -– which seemed absurd on its face, given Trump’s two immediate predecessors.
Both Barack Obama and George W. Bush were visibly more physically fit than Trump. Bush would spend hours clearing brush at his Texas ranch and riding his mountain bike. Obama would participate in periodic, full-court basketball games.
Trump, in contrast, appears to ride in a golf cart rather than walk when he plays golf -– even violating course etiquette by driving up onto the green. As president, he has not appeared before press cameras without a jacket -– thereby avoiding unflattering photos of his torso -– even if it has meant wearing a windbreaker at events where the temperature has been in the 80s or 90s, as it was during his post-hurricane visits to Texas and Puerto Rico.
In interviews, Trump has offered an unorthodox view of exercise, explaining that the human body is like a battery, born with a finite quantity of energy, and he did not want to waste any of it on exercise. (Most doctors and other experts disagree with this analysis, and believe that regular exercise is essential for good health, particularly cardiovascular health.)
The health of the chief executive has been an on-again, off-again concern in the U.S. for nearly a century. In 1919 Woodrow Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke, which was largely covered up by his doctor and his wife. Edith Wilson essentially served as de facto president until her husband’s partial recovery the following year.
Franklin Roosevelt took pains to hide the fact he used a wheelchair because of a polio-like affliction, and went to win an unprecedented three re-elections before dying in office shortly into his fourth term. Ronald Reagan, who until Trump had been the oldest man to become president, released all manner of medical records, included a detailed report of the polyps removed from his colon. Still, after the 1994 announcement that Reagan had Alzheimer’s disease, questions were raised about whether he had shown signs of the disorder years earlier during his second term.
The recent president most similar to Trump in terms of his diet and physique was Bill Clinton. He admitted to enjoying fast food -– a Saturday Night Live skit had him jogging into a McDonald’s and devouring sandwiches -– and was overweight through much of his presidency. He later underwent quadruple bypass surgery because of arterial plaque.
Yet even Clinton, who at 6 feet 2 inches is the same height as Trump, did not weigh as much during his time in office as Trump did in late 2016: 236 pounds, according to a follow-up note from Bornstein released two months before the November election. (Bornstein appeared to have exaggerated Trump’s height, listing him as him as 6 foot 3 inches, which had the effect of putting his body mass index calculation in the “overweight” category, rather than “obese.”)
Whether Trump’s weight is causing him serious health risks cannot be known without a thorough physical exam. How deeply Trump’s doctors will address that topic in their report remains to be seen.
In Obama’s first medical exam released after he took office at age 47, he was described as being in “excellent health” despite a borderline high cholesterol count and an acknowledgement that he was having trouble avoiding cigarettes. That report was released in February 2010.
George W. Bush’s first medical exam was released in August 2001, just seven months after taking office at age 54. It found: “The president is in outstanding health and is fit for duty.”
Trump’s first campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, reported the McDonald’s meal – all 2,430 calories of it – in the new book he co-authored, Let Trump Be Trump. He said, though, that Americans should know that Trump usually consumed the food in the evening and was the only thing he would have eaten.
“The candidate typically had one meal a day,” Lewandowski said.