Is the President Fit?

Few props have been more indispensable to Donald Trump’s presidency than the golf cart. He drives them on his frequent weekend trips to the links (invariably at Trump-owned clubs, where he rolls onto the greens, too—normally a no-no). During his visit to Saudi Arabia in May, rather than walk, the president hopped a ride in a cart as he toured the National Museum in Riyadh. And a few days later, while six other world leaders at a G-7 summit in Sicily walked 700 yards up a slight hill to a photo-op, Trump followed behind for at least part of the way in, yes, another golf cart.

The images of Trump in his carts—at the wheel, wearing a “MAGA” hat on the golf course, or suited and solemn in Saudi Arabia—resonate strongly with Jack O’Donnell, an executive who worked for Trump in Atlantic City. It was 28 years ago—right after a helicopter crash killed three of Trump’s executives—that Trump told O’Donnell, who often trained for triathlons, that exercise was going to ruin his body. “He told me you’ve got to stop that,” O’Donnell told me. “He really believed we only have so much energy, that it was important not to waste it.”

When O’Donnell, who in 1991 published a tell-all book about working with Trump, watches Trump putter along in his vehicle of choice, he doesn’t see a man conserving energy but a man who is unfit for office. As in, literally, physically unfit. “It says to me that he is in horrible shape and he knows it,” O’Donnell said. “He’d walk if he could, but he knows he can’t keep up with the group, so he rides the cart instead.” (Trump, for his part, dismissed O’Donnell in a 1999 Playboy interview as a “disgruntled employee” and “a fucking loser” who “didn’t know that much about what he was doing.”)

In the modern history of American presidents, no occupant of the Oval Office has evinced less interest in his own health. He does not smoke or drink, but his fast-food, red meat-heavy diet, his aversion to exercise and a tendency to gorge on television for hours at a time put him at odds with his predecessors. Some of them had their vices (Barack Obama and his cigarettes), but they spent hours of free time outside or on the basketball court, breaking a sweat—and made sure the public knew it. Teddy Roosevelt went on legendary “rough, cross-country walks” in D.C.’s Rock Creek Park and was once punched in the eye by a sparring partner half his age. John F. Kennedy projected an image of youthful vitality even as he secretly took painkillers for his bad back and other ailments. Gerald Ford was lampooned as a clumsy oaf on Saturday Night Live, but he was a champion football player in college. George W. Bush, an avid mountain biker, ran 7-minute miles on his regular 5k workouts. Even Bill Clinton lumbered along on regular jogs to atone for his Big Mac habit.

When Trump goes out, it’s more often to eat—usually at one of his hotels where the chefs know he likes his steak well done with ketchup. And on the campaign trail, he made a point of mentioning his taste for fast foods like Kentucky Fried Chicken (It’s not that bad,” he said). This may make the president more relatable to the average American, who scarfs down some $1,200 worth of fast food each year, but it’s an unusual habit for someone holding down one of the world’s most demanding jobs. And even by his own charitable metrics—last year, Trump claimed to stand 6-foot-3 and weighs 236 pounds—he is five pounds shy of obese under the body mass index. By any measure, America’s president is overweight, and medical experts say it could be affecting his health and his job. In Saudi Arabia, after Trump deviated from the prepared text of a speech, an aide explained that the president was “exhausted.” Jet lag, maybe. Old age, perhaps. But certainly not an excuse the Bull Moose would have made.

All this scrutiny might seem like body shaming if it weren’t for Trump’s own obsession with appearances. This is a man, who at 71, has not lost his appetite for a good slap at someone else’s looks, whether it’s Marco Rubio’s stature, Mika Brzezinski’s chin-tweak, Kim Kardashian’s baby weight or the girth of one of his beauty-pageant winners. Only last week, he broke diplomatic protocol to tell Brigitte Macron, the French first lady, “You’re in such good shape … beautiful.”

Presidents have long established standards of vigor and healthful living with their individual passions—Ford skied, Reagan rode horses, Carter liked to work on his farm—but Trump has managed to dispense with this unspoken obligation of the presidency as easily as he has every other White House norm. Indeed, Trump has broken with the tradition of displaying athleticism as a signal to the public that all was well with the world’s most important political body. George W. Bush loved being photographed clearing brush on his ranch. Gerald Ford had no compunction about being shown disrobing for a swim while the press corps ringed the pool. Heck, Richard Nixon was photographed bowling. But Trump won’t even admit that he is actually golfing, much less permit an image to be taken.

“Here’s a guy who is constantly appraising other people and using that as a measure of social worth, but not taking care of himself,” Trump biographer Tim O’Brien told me. “That’s a revealing thing; there’s a little bit of self-loathing here.” Added O’Donnell: “You see the side-by-side pictures of presidents from the beginning of their terms to the end. They age, their hair turns gray. Think of what he’s going to look like.”

***

Donald Trump was once an athlete, a star first baseman, in fact. In high school at the New York Military Academy, he was, according to his coach, talented enough to be drafted. But Trump headed off to Fordham instead of pursuing a pro career because, as he put it, “there was no money in it.” At Fordham, he tried out for the football team as a punter, but quit after suffering an ankle injury and settled for a spot on the squash team (he later transferred to Penn). And despite his athletic background, Trump received a medical deferral from the Vietnam War for bone spurs in 1968.

It was after college, though, that Trump’s interest in optics became clear, O’Brien said. His first foray into business wasn’t real estate, but entertainment. He wanted to be a movie producer and produced a Broadway show, a comedy entitled, incidentally, “Paris Is Out!” It was a telling early move for a man who is highly conscious of images—including his own. “He thinks cinematically about optics,” O’Brien said.

Trump cut an impressive figure in the nightspots of 1970s Manhattan, where he moved to broaden his father’s real estate empire into the borough that mattered most for someone looking to make a name for himself. The press noticed. In 1976, the New York Times described Trump as “tall, lean and blond, with dazzling white teeth, and he looks ever so much like Robert Redford.” “Being this specimen of masculinity really matters to him,” said one long-time Trump observer. “He wants to live up to that.”

No one I spoke with could pinpoint an exact moment when Trump swore off exercise. Or how, exactly, he morphed from a military school athlete to the fleshy septuagenarian he is today. The culprits, they thought, were simply age, along with the general lack of discipline that infects other aspects of his personality.

But according to O’Donnell, Trump’s insecurities and vanities about his own appearance increased around the time he began an affair with fitness guru and model Marla Maples in the late 1980s; it was also when his celebrity exploded, and after he had turned 40. In his book, O’Donnell writes, “Always somewhat soft in the middle, he began taking himself through cycles of binging and starving. For days, he’d eat nothing but red meat, then he’d fast, then he seemed to get by on nothing but candy and popcorn.”

In Lost Tycoon!, which was published in 1993, journalist Harry Hurt III observed that stress could also affect Trump physically. When faced with financial troubles in Atlantic City, Trump gained weight thanks to a heavy diet of pastrami sandwiches. Hurt also claimed that Trump became obsessed with losing his hair, which led to a scalp reduction procedure (Trump has denied it). “The worst thing a man can do is go bald,” Trump told a group of his executives, according to Hurt. “Never let yourself go bald.”

Despite his skepticism about exercise, Trump played tennis into the ‘90s. His pro, Anthony Boulle, has said he was a competent player, but Trump quit after Boulle talked him out of trying to hit winners all the time. And today, Trump professes to get his exercise from golf. “When I play a few rounds on the weekend, I’ll come in Monday morning and I’ll have lost 3 or 4 pounds,” he told Men’s Journal in 2013. “That’s very pleasurable exercise, and it keeps you away from the refrigerator because you’re out on the course.”

But according to those who have golfed with the president, his rounds at Bedminster or Trump International shouldn’t be confused with anything resembling aerobic exercise. Trump is reported to be a very good player with a single-digit handicap—admirably low—but swinging a club about 70-80 times in five hours isn’t exactly physically taxing. Former Sports Illustrated columnist Rick Reilly told me that when he played a round with Trump for his 2003 book, Who’s Your Caddy? he asked if he could walk the course. Trump insisted on driving a cart. “And when you drive on the greens you do even less walking,” Reilly wrote to me recently in an email, referring to the viral clip of Trump rolling his cart across the green at Bedminster. (In fairness, Reilly also played a round of golf with President Clinton, and in the limo afterward, Clinton opened his bag to reveal a pile of Twix chocolate bars and Pepsi.)

On the campaign trail, Trump brilliantly covered for his own physical liabilities by attacking his opponents’ supposed infirmities. Jeb Bush was “low energy” and Hillary Clinton didn’t have “stamina.” Meanwhile, at times on the debate stage during the Republican primary, Trump looked spent, mentally and physically. Still, he could make a show of going on TV with Dr. Oz to discuss a recent physical (Trump admitted he’d like to lose 15 to 20 pounds) and having his personal doctor, Harold Bornstein, declare him, “the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.” In two separate letters, Bornstein proclaimed Trump had lost 15 pounds in the last year, takes a statin for cholesterol and has been hospitalized once in his life: for an appendectomy as an 11-year-old. But there was little supporting evidence released.

Even as his doctor was laying it on thick, Trump, as is his habit, was busy delivering the real story. He bragged about his chairbound lifestyle, telling the New York Times Magazine: “All my friends who work out all the time, they’re going for knee replacements, hip replacements—they’re a disaster.” He relished discussing his KFC diet and argued at one point that campaigning was exercise. “It’s how he sold himself as the everyman billionaire,” said Gwenda Blair, another of Trump’s biographers. In other words, it’s one of the reasons he won.

***

On April 28, the White House released a statement in honor of National Physical Fitness and Sports Month that was attributed to the president. “Maintaining a healthy and active lifestyle is critical to long-term physical and mental well-being,” it read, later adding, “Failure to engage in physical activity contributes to serious negative health outcomes, including obesity and diseases such as type 2 diabetes, and an increased risk of heart disease, the number one cause of death in America.”

The statement came just two weeks after Trump, in response to a question about launching a missile strike in Syria, took the opportunity to describe a piece of chocolate cake in libidinously suggestive terms. Several months later, the statement remains the latest item under the news page on the website of the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition, a small department inside the Department of Health and Human Services, dedicated to promoting active and healthy lifestyles.

The council was formed by Dwight Eisenhower in 1956 after he grew concerned about research that showed American children lagging behind their counterparts around the world in key fitness areas. Kennedy brought even more publicity to it when he introduced the Presidential Fitness Award, meant to prepare young Americans for military service. Kennedy wrapped his concerns about American fitness in Cold War rhetoric, writing in Sports Illustrated, "in a very real and immediate sense, our growing softness, our increasing lack of physical fitness, is a menace to our security.”

The council received another wave of publicity when George H.W. Bush (himself a baseball standout at Yale and devotee of lightning-quick golf rounds) appointed Arnold Schwarzenegger, the bodybuilding champion, movie star and future governor, as chairman. Schwarzenegger took the job seriously, visiting all 50 states. Under the Obama administration, the council was integrally involved in Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move initiative to encourage kids to put down the video game controller and get physically active. “We can’t lie around on the couch eating French fries and candy bars and expect our kids to eat carrots and run around the block,” she once said, preaching the importance of adults leading by example.

The future of the council, which has a staff of just a few employees and a budget of around $1 million, under Trump is unclear. Donald Wright, a former family physician and a holdover from the Obama administration, is currently the acting executive director of the council, as well as the acting assistant secretary of health. Trump has yet to appoint any of the 20 council members, although at least one man has expressed interest, despite an apparent lack of qualifications: National Enquirer publisher and Trump pal David Pecker.

The president is probably as likely to quit Twitter as he is to join an early morning boot camp, or even get himself a personal trainer like his daughter, who does a 5 a.m. workout each morning before her three kids wake up. But public health experts would be happy with a far more modest example of effort from a man who enjoys the biggest bully pulpit in the world.

“Imagine if Trump got up tomorrow and got a trainer or even just started walking,” Dr. John Ratey, a psychology professor at Harvard Medical School and the author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, told me. Even if no one but his most loyal base responded, that could make a life-saving difference in the lives of thousands of people, he said. The red states that went for Trump tend to have higher rates of obesity, sedentary lifestyles and even shorter lifespans, Ratey noted: “Oh, my God! He could reach the very people who need this—they’re his followers.”

Ratey was also deeply concerned about the effects of the president’s lack of exercise on his mental health. STAT News, the health-focused website, found that Trump has grown significantly less articulate over the years, raising the question of whether he is suffering some kind of cognitive decline. For anyone Trump’s age, Ratey said, the single best way to maintain brain function is to exercise, which can help people process new information, make better decisions and relieve stress and frustration. “It’s all the things that a CEO or someone in a high-stress job would need to do,” Ratey said. “Exercise is a magic component.”

According to Michael D’Antonio, one of Trump’s biographers, the president has professed a belief in the superiority of his genes, and he seems content to lean on them as he maintains his current lifestyle. But in the Men’s Journal interview, Trump offered a bit of telling advice for a healthy relationship. “You’ve got to take care of your body and stay healthy,” he said. “You don’t want to be a liability. You don’t want to become somebody’s patient.”

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