President Donald Trump brought his health to the national coronavirus conversation on May 18 when he told reporters that he was taking hydroxychloroquine, a longstanding anti-malaria drug, as a preventative measure against COVID-19.
Trump’s confidence in the drug against COVID-19 has not been supported by most studies. In fact, physicians say that the drug has serious side effects for patients, especially if they have pre-existing conditions such as heart problems.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told CNN’s Anderson Cooper she was concerned for other reasons. In the interview, Cooper asked Pelosi what she thought of Trump saying he is taking the drug.
"I would rather he not be taking something that has not been approved by the scientists, especially in his age group and in his, shall we say, weight group," Pelosi said. "He’s morbidly obese, they say."
Pelosi’s comment probably was meant to get under Trump’s skin. Trump has ridiculed other people’s heights and weights in the past, while others have questioned whether he’s been accurate in describing his own height and weight.
But morbid obesity, or severe obesity, is a term of science, and weight is a risk factor for COVID-19.
We decided to see what we could find out. Pelosi’s office did not offer a comment.
The White House did not respond to an inquiry for this article. Trump responded to Pelosi’s comments at a May 19 news conference, calling Pelosi "a sick woman" with "a lot of mental problems."
Officially, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not define the threshold needed for someone to be considered “morbidly obese.” Instead, the CDC says that “Class 3” obesity, sometimes categorized as “extreme” or “severe” obesity, is defined as having a body-mass index, or BMI, of 40 or higher. Other medical sources list a definition of “morbidly obese” as equivalent to a BMI of 40 or higher.
Some available data about Trump comes from his most recent periodic physical exam. In a 2019 memo, Trump’s physician Dr. Sean Conley said Trump was 6 feet, 3 inches tall and 243 pounds.
Trump, who was 72 at the time, had gained 4 pounds since his 2018 exam, when his previous doctor, Ronny Jackson, said Trump’s "overall health is excellent" but "he would benefit from a diet that is lower in fat and carbohydrates and from a routine exercise regiment."
Officially, Trump’s height and weight would correlate to a BMI of 30.1, just a bit over the 30.0 level to be considered obese — the lowest of three levels. That is not high enough to count as Class 3 obesity.
Based on the 2019 physical exam, Trump "would not be considered morbidly obese at this time," said Lucas Carr, a professor in the department of health and human physiology at the University of Iowa.
Paresh Dandona, the head of endocrinology, diabetes and metabolism at the State University of New York, agreed with this observation.
Height and weight questioners
Some critics, such as MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough, say they think Trump is neither 6-foot-3 (a New York driver’s license listed him as 6 feet, 2 inches), nor does he weigh around 240 pounds.
"By the way he's picked up, magically picked up, he's 2 inches taller now than he was a couple years ago, right?" Scarborough said on his MSNBC show in 2019.
"I'm sorry, I'm a guy that weighs about 240, 241," he said. "This guy, this guy is, he's pushing 300, there's no doubt about it," Scarborough said. "Maybe he's 270, maybe he's 280."
The Washington Post went so far in 2016 as to have experts guess Trump’s weight. Their answers: 250-260 pounds; 228-242 pounds; 252-255 pounds; at least 240 “maybe more”.
To have a BMI above 40, with the highest of those weights (260 pounds), Trump would need to be shorter than 5 feet, 8 inches. He’s not.
Weight, age risk factors
Pelosi does have a point that an individual’s age and weight are risk factors for worse outcomes after a coronavirus infection. Many studies connect obesity with COVID-19 complications, and data has shown higher death rates for older patients than younger ones. The CDC warns on their "Defining Adult Obesity" page that "severe obesity (a BMI of 40 or higher) may raise risk" of a severe reaction to COVID-19.
The CDC also warns that "older adults, 65 years and older, are at higher risk for severe illness and death from COVID-19." Trump is 73.
Pelosi called Trump "morbidly obese."
Based off of his declared height and weight, Trump has a body mass index of 30.1. This places him into the lowest of three levels under the CDC’s definition of obesity. Even if the public numbers are a bit shy of reality, Trump would have to be substantially heavier to meet a level of severe, or morbid, obesity.
We rate Pelosi’s claim False.
PolitiFact senior correspondent Louis Jacobson and executive director Aaron Sharockman contributed to this report.